Vitiligo is a skin disorder that affects the superficial layers of the skin and is characterized by the appearance of white patches on the body. The loss of pigmentation, also known as depigmentation, occurs when the melanocytes are destroyed. In addition to protecting the skin, melanocytes are the cells responsible for giving the skin its color (pigmentation).
This skin conditions affects 1 to 2% of the population, irrespective of gender and skin color. It usually appears between 10 and 30 years of age, with 50% of cases diagnosed in those under the age of 20.
Although the exact cause of vitiligo is still not fully understood, it would appear that genetics have a role to play since 30% of those affected know of a family member who also has the condition. It is believed that vitiligo is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body reacts by destroying the cells responsible for skin pigmentation.
Certain factors may trigger the condition in those at risk of developing vitiligo:
- Bad sunburns
- Emotional shock
- Intense stress
The areas of the body most often affected by the appearance of white patches include the face, arms, hands, feet, joints and areas subject to friction. Disease progression is unpredictable.
Individuals with vitiligo are more at risk of suffering from other autoimmune diseases such as alopecia, Addison's disease, pernicious anemia, lupus, thyroid disorders, etc.
A physician can make a diagnosis of vitiligo solely by observing the characteristic white patches on the skin.
There are various forms of the disease based on the size and distribution of the patches on the body. Some patients may even experience depigmentation of the hair and mucous membranes.
Various treatment options are available based on the desired result. If the condition occurs in children, treatment will first and foremost involve covering and protecting the skin from the sun with clothing. The patches can also be covered up with cosmetics and self-tanning creams.
When the patches affect a large portion of the body's surface area, it is possible to lighten the skin to achieve a more uniform appearance. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are treatments that repigment the skin which involve stimulating melanocyte production in the patches. These may consist of topical treatments (creams that are applied) or phototherapy (light therapy).
As a last resort, there are surgical treatments such as skin grafts.
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent vitiligo. It is possible however, to prevent certain complications associated with the skin condition. Since the melanocytes that protect the skin from the sun's rays are destroyed, those with depigmented skin are more at risk for sunburns and cancer. It is therefore important to protect the skin with sunscreen.
For more information, do not hesitate to speak to your pharmacist.