What is Vitiligo? Learn All About its Causes and Cures

What is vitiligo? While vitiligo is considered a benign illness, it can be the cause of social and psychological issues for those who suffer from it.
What is Vitiligo? Learn All About its Causes and Cures

Last update: 19 May, 2020

Vitiligo is a chronic illness that gives the skin an abnormal pigmentation. It forms white areas of different size and distribution on the skin. They are commonly found in the darker areas of the skin or those areas exposed to friction. The face, underarms, lips, genitals, and hands, etc. are more susceptible to vitiligo.

The disease affects between 1 and 2 percent of the population.  Generally, it attacks people between the ages of 20 and 30 years old, or those older than 50.  However, it can occur at any time in life and is more prevalent in women than in men.

Vitiligo is not contagious. Its appearance is unpredictable, even though it does tend to progress. Oddly enough, there are a few victims of this disease who experience spontaneous re-pigmentation. The rare cases in which this occur, almost always happen to children.

What is Vitiligo? The Origin of Vitiligo

Up until now, science has ignored the cause of this illness.  Experts believe that it could be an autoimmune disease, but there is insufficient evidence to confirm this.  In addition, there is a positive relation to the gene factor.   Every one in five people with vitiligo has a relative with this condition.

The most accepted hypothesis is that the loss of pigmentation occurs because the melanocytes develop processes of auto-destruction.  There are also other factors associated with this, such as sunburns and emotional stress.

The level of pigmentation loss varies from patient to patient.  At times it begins rapidly and then stops suddenly and because this the reason is ignored. In the majority of cases, there is a clinical evolution: the active periods of the disease alternate with periods of stability.

Symptoms of vitiligo

The main signs of vitiligo are the white areas on the skin. They appear mainly on the areas that are exposed to the sun. As mentioned earlier, they also appear on the mucous membranes and in the areas of friction.

Woman with vitiligo

The number of spots increases with time. However, this is completely unpredictable and presents great variations from one person to the next. Of course, it is more noticeable on those who have darker skin. People with lighter skin only see these areas when their skin is red or they have a rash.

Even though the scalp does not look affected by vitiligo, it is common for the hair to turn grey prematurely. At any rate, this illness is classified as benign since it doesn’t cause serious damage to the body.  The main issue is aesthetic and psychological.

Types of vitiligo

There are two types of vitiligo: nonfragmented, or type A, and fragmented, or type B.  Type A is the most frequent and mainly is a genetic factor.  There are four subtypes, according to the distribution of the dispigmentation process.

Woman with vitiligo

  • Localized. The spots are few and are located in a specific zone.
  • They are on the hands and around the orifices of the face.
  • Dispigmentation appears on the feet and hands.
  • Generalized.  Distribution of the spots is random and covers the main part of the body.  This is the most common form of vitiligo.

Type B vitiligo is less common.  It generally appears at an early age, in children, and in young people. It almost always begins with a rapid growth of spots, but then slows down, commonly after a year.

Diagnosis and prognosis

The usual path is to have a physician conduct a physical exam as well as take a clinical history to make a diagnosis. This includes a detailed inspection of the spots to verify if they relate to the illness. At the same time, they ask about the family history and the general state of the patient.

In case of doubt, or if the symptoms indicate other illnesses, the provider will eventually order additional exams such as the following:

  • Skin biopsy
  • UV lamp exam
  • Blood test
  • Eye exam

Currently, researchers are looking into the topic of vitiligo.  They are basically focusing on three areas. The first is to determine the incidence of stress and trauma caused by this condition.  The second is to establish the influence of the genetics on vitiligo.  Finally, they are developing experiments with laboratory rats to develop new treatments.

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