What Is Vitiligo?

Close up of a hand with Vitiligo

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  • Vitiligo is a rare skin condition that affects 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population. While this skin condition is not at all fatal, it should be noted that having these white patches make a person more prone to sunburn and skin cancer
  • Vitiligo is much more noticeable in people with dark skin. Some of the external stimuli usually said to influence the occurrence of vitiligo include stress, trauma and the genetic predisposition to the condition

Vitiligo is a rare skin condition that affects 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population. According to statistics, about 2 million to 5 million people in the United States are affected by this disease.1 Vitiligo is characterized by the loss of pigment in various areas of the skin. The extent and severity of vitiligo varies from person to person, with some people developing small patches, while others having large white areas that cover a considerable amount of their skin.

The cause for the loss of melanocytes in the skin, however, is not yet known. Studies have suggested that vitiligo may be an autoimmune disease where the immune system targets and destroys the melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin and cause pigmentation in the skin.2

While this skin condition is not at all fatal, it should be noted that having these white patches make a person more prone to sunburn and skin cancer. However, the development of skin cancer should not be seen as causal to vitiligo. It is a common misconception that vitiligo patients will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives.3

Vitiligo Risk and Occurrence

Vitiligo has been observed to occur largely in patients in their 20s, but can affect people at any age. The risk for developing this condition is not dictated by race or gender, with every person in the population having an equal chance of getting vitiligo.

However, vitiligo is much more noticeable in people with dark skin. Some of the external stimuli usually said to influence the occurrence of vitiligo include stress, trauma and the genetic predisposition to the condition.4 People affected by autoimmune diseases also have a higher risk of contracting vitiligo. The explanation for this heightened risk has not yet been explained, but it is commonly connected to how the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells.5

Common Conditions Mistaken for Vitiligo

Depigmentation of the skin is not a symptom that is exclusive to vitiligo. Vitiligo macules (discolored skin areas) share the same appearance as other marks, which are usually caused by a range of fungal and bacterial infections, with some being more severe than others.

Because of the uncertainty and the lack of a clear differentiation between these conditions, vitiligo patients are commonly discriminated against or even avoided, in fear that these patients have contracted infectious diseases. Some of those feared disases include the following:6

Pityriasis alba. This condition starts with the development of red scaly patches on the skin, which then heal and leave depigmented areas. The cause for this is not known but it is usually attributed to atopic dermatitis.7

Piebaldism. This genetic condition is characterized by the complete absence of melanocytes at certain areas of the body. It is commonly observed in the scalp and forehead area and is present at birth. These areas cannot re-pigment or spread through time, unlike with vitiligo.8

Tinea versicolor is a condition caused by the overabundance of yeast in the skin. This causes small white patches on the trunk, back, upper arms or legs.

Leprosy. One of the common mistakes that people commit when talking about vitiligo is wrongly concluding that it is synonymous to leprosy. In India,  there is a fear of people who have vitiligo because of the belief that these two conditions are the same. Unlike vitiligo, leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by bacteria, Mycobacillus leprae. Vitiligo, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease and cannot be transmitted from person to person.

Albinism. The difference between these conditions can be easily observed through the variations in the extent of the affected skin. Albinism, a congenital disorder, affects the whole body, while vitiligo affects only a portion of the skin.

Unlike vitiligo, albinism is not a condition that is acquired through time. On the contrary, it is hereditary and is not caused by the destruction of the melanocytes found in the skin.

MORE ABOUT VITILIGO

Vitiligo: an Introduction

What Is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo Symptoms

Vitiligo Causes

Types of Vitiligo

Vitiligo Treatment

Vitiligo Prevention

Vitiligo Diet

Vitiligo FAQ

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