If Vitiligo ever comes up in conversation, would you recognize the word? Perhaps you have not heard the term, but I think some of us can say we have seen it. There is a long list of people with vitiligo who make a living in the public eye, including singers, actors, artists, models, and sports players. June 25th is World Vitiligo Day, and at Skin Cancer & Dermatology Institute, we would like to help spread the word by providing you with some basic information about this disorder. And if you are one of the estimated $3.7 million people living with vitiligo in the US, hopefully, we can provide you with some helpful information.
What is Vitiligo and What Causes It?
Vitiligo is a chronic depigmenting disorder of the skin. Skin cells that produce pigment (called melanocytes) are lost when the body’s immune system attacks them, resulting in well-defined white patches of skin.
Vitiligo can appear anywhere on the body, but common sites affected are the exposed areas like the face, neck, hands, or feet. Vitiligo can also appear in places where trauma to the skin has occurred (cuts, thermal burns, or sunburns). It occurs equally in people of all skin colors and races, but it is more pronounced in people with dark or tanned skin.
This disorder can vary widely from person to person. For some, it can be just a few patches of depigmented skin, while on others, it affects them over significant areas of the body.
Although it is not fully understood, Vitiligo is thought to be an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system is responsible for the loss of melanocytes. There is a genetic susceptibility, so people with a family history of vitiligo are more likely to develop it. Certain events may also trigger vitiligo or make it worse. Psychological stress seems to be the most common trigger event, with damage to the skin such as sunburns, chemical burns and cuts also contributing. Lastly, hormonal changes during pregnancy, delivery, and menopause have been known to be culprits.
Vitiligo is a clinical diagnosis, so no specific tests are necessary. Sometimes the Provider will use a Wood lamp (blacklight) which allows the white patches to be more easily seen.
Once you are diagnosed with vitiligo, your Dermatologist will establish which type your symptoms fall under. The two basic types are Generalized Vitiligo (also known as Non-Segmental) and Segmental Vitiligo. Ascertaining the type will allow your Provider to individualize your treatment for better results.
Generalized Vitiligo is the most common type. This is a symmetric type (equally affecting both the right and left sides of the body) and often begins with a rapid loss of color, then stops for a while. This stop and grow cycle can go on for the person’s lifetime. The color loss also tends to expand and cover large body areas.
Segmented Vitiligo appears on one body segment, such as the face, leg, or arm. About half of patients will also lose hair color on the head, eyelashes, or eyebrows. This type seems to begin at an earlier age and often progresses for a time and then stops.
There are a variety of treatments for Vitiligo. Most treatments aim to restore skin color, although it is difficult to achieve re-pigmentation in many cases. There is no real “cure” for Vitiligo, and the disorder tends to be chronic once it appears. On a positive note, it is neither a life-threatening nor a contagious condition.
Try to keep in mind that treatments take time, and not everyone responds to them equally. Your Provider may choose more than one treatment to achieve better results.
- Topical Medications – Several topical medications can be used, some of which are topical steroids. These treatments are best for smaller areas and aim to return skin color to these areas.
- Phototherapy – This therapy uses ultraviolet (UV) light to stimulate melanocytes to re-pigment the skin. This can be particularly useful in larger areas of the body. Treatments typically must be done several times a week for a number of months. Another form of phototherapy is the use of a specialty laser. These can be directed more effectively to a specific smaller area.
- Systemic Medications – these are medications that work throughout the body. Your Provider may want to use these in conjunction with other treatments.
Seeing a specialist, such as a Board-Certified Dermatologist, to diagnose and treat your vitiligo will allow you to work with your Provider to put together a treatment plan specific to your situation. Your Provider will also let you know what type of risks are involved with each treatment.
Medical treatments should be managed in a Dermatology setting for best results but living with a skin condition that is visible for all to see can be difficult. Those living with vitiligo sometimes suffer low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. There are some things you can do to help manage your condition.
- Avoid injury to the skin: these can develop patches of white skin where you injured yourself. You also want to avoid tattoos since these, by nature, cause damage to your skin. You will usually see a new patch develop within two weeks of getting a tattoo.
- Protect your skin from the sun: Patches of depigmented skin become more susceptible to the sun’s UV radiation and will burn easily. Always be mindful of sun protection by using sunscreen daily. Use sunscreen with an SPF of 50+ and seek shade whenever possible. Stay away from artificial UV light sources such as tanning beds and sun lamps which will also damage your skin.
- Always wear protective clothing such as long-sleeve shirts, broad-brimmed hats, and long pants or skirts.
- Try using self-tanning products and cover-ups: you can safely add color to your skin by using products easily found over the counter. There are some great self-tanning products, plus there are also concealers, dyes, and make-up that can help even out your skin tone.
At Skin Cancer & Dermatology Institute, we can help you with any questions about vitiligo or if you need to diagnose or treat your condition. Please reach out to one of our highly experienced and qualified Board-Certified Dermatologists and Certified Physician Assistants. You can book an appointment online for any of our ten convenient locations or call us at 775.324.0699, where our friendly staff will get you set up.
ABOUT OUR AUTHOR
Ashley Owens, PA-C, is a Certified Physician Assistant specializing in Medical Dermatology. Ashley is a native of Reno. After her studies, she returned home in 2016 to practice, and she is thrilled to be helping patients of all ages. When Ashley is not at the office, she enjoys spending time with her husband, daughter, and extended family, enjoying the area’s outdoor activities.