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What Is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a chronic disorder that causes areas of skin to lose color. With this condition, skin cells that make color are attacked and destroyed and the skin turns a milky-white color.

No one knows what causes it, but it may be an autoimmune disease. In people with autoimmune diseases, the immune cells mistakenly attack the body’s own healthy tissues instead of viruses or bacteria.

A person with this condition sometimes may have family members who also have the disease. There is no cure, but treatments can help even out skin tones.

Who gets it?

Anyone can get vitiligo and it can happen at any age. For many people, the white patches show up before age 20.

It seems to occur more in people who have family members with the disorder or who have certain autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or Type 1 Diabetes.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom of vitiligo is loss of natural color. The patches can show up on any part of your body and can affect:

  • Skin, which develops milky-white patches, usually on the hands, feet, arms and face.
  • Hair, which can turn white on the scalp, eyebrow, eyelashes and beard.
  • The inside of your mouth or nose.

People with vitiligo can also develop problems with the eyes and ears, such as glaucoma and hearing loss. In addition, people with the disorder may worry about how their skin looks, which can affect their general well-being.

What causes vitiligo?

No one knows the exact cause. It may be an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the skin cells that make color. Also, your family history and genes can play a role in causing vitiligo.

Finally, sometimes a sunburn, stressful life event, or contact with a chemical can trigger vitiligo or make it worse.

Is there a test for it?

To see if you have vitiligo, your doctor may ask about your family history and do a full physical exam. The doctor may use a special tool that shines a black light on your skin.

Your doctor may also run blood tests, check your eyes, or take a small sample of your skin to be examined under a microscope.

How is it treated?

In most cases, the goals of treatment are to:

  • Slow or stop the disease.
  • Help skin cells that make color to grow again.
  • Bring back color to the white patches of skin.

Treatments do not always work for every person. Additionally, new patches of vitiligo may form. You may need more than one treatment to get the best results.

Treatments can include:

  • Medicines or medicated skin creams, which may be able to return color to the white patches of skin.
  • Light therapy to help return color to the skin*.

Living with vitiligo

Living with vitiligo can be hard. Some people with the disorder feel embarrassed, sad, ashamed or upset about how their skin looks. This can lead to low self-esteem and depression. Seeking advice from a counselor or therapist can help you cope.

You can help manage vitiligo by:

  • Using sunscreen and wearing clothes to protect your skin.
  • Wearing self-tanning lotions or dyes to cover white patches of skin.
  • Finding a doctor who has treated other people with vitiligo.
  • Learning about the disorder and treatments to help you make decisions about your care.
  • Finding a vitiligo support group, either in person or online.
  • Reaching out to family and friends for support.

“If you’ve developed unusual patches on your skin, contact us for an appointment today,” advises DeSilva Dermatology’s Dr. Thushan DeSilva. “There are treatment options available to correct skin color and help you to feel less self-conscious.”

*DeSilva Dermatology will refer you to an outside physician for this therapy.
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