What Is Vitiligo?

As part of a campaign to build awareness around vitiligo, we are running a series of posts highlighting different experiences people have encountered whilst living with the condition. To hear real-life stories from people with vitiligo, follow us on our Facebook and Instagram channels.

 

What is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a persistent and often chronic pigmentary disorder affecting roughly 1 in 100 people. While it is not directly life-threatening, vitiligo can become emotionally challenging as many of its effects can become psychological.

What is the Cause of Vitiligo?

Melanin is a pigment produced by cells known as melanocytes, which gives our skin, hair and eyes, colour. In vitiligo, melanocytes may be absent or lack function, which causes lighter patches (lesions) to appear on various parts of the body instead. Sometimes the lesions may appear slightly pinkish due to the presence of blood vessels.

The trigger is still unknown, but it is believed to be an autoimmune condition that causes the immune cells to attack and destroy the body’s melanocytes.

The Types of Vitiligo

Broadly, there are three main types of vitiligo which are classed based on the distribution of the lesions:

  • Segmental Vitiligo: Presents in distinct sections.
  • Vitiligo (formally known as generalised or non-segmental vitiligo): Widespread across the body. This most common form of vitiligo, affecting roughly 90% of the vitiligo population.
  • Universal Vitiligo: Near complete loss of pigment (over 80% of the body), although this type of vitiligo is rare.

Who Develops Vitiligo?

Anyone can develop vitiligo. Both sexes can develop vitiligo, with there no age restrictions to when the condition may appear. The majority of evidence also suggests its prevalence is predominantly equal across all ethnicities, although lesions may appear more noticeable in those with a naturally darker complexion.

Genetics are suspected to play a small role in vitiligo. 10% of patients have a family history of the condition and blood relatives have an increased risk of developing it.

Diagnosis and Prognosis

If you believe you may have vitiligo, you must seek medical advice from a physician who can provide you with a diagnosis.

This disorder is highly unpredictable. The severity of vitiligo will vary with the individual, and there is no way to predict how much pigment you will lose or the rate at which it will spread. Occasionally, people may undergo spontaneous repigmentation without a known cause.

Treatment

Currently, there is no cure for vitiligo. Treatments are available, which can be discussed with your physician, but it’s essential to note the outcome is very variable. Many treatment options have been developed, but challenges persist. Not all patients respond to available therapies, and relapse is common. Factors such as your extent of vitiligo and its distribution will play an important role in determining which treatment is suitable for you.

Sun protection

Melanin protects us from some of the harmful effects of sunlight and other sources of UV radiation. Therefore, vitiligo lesions are particularly vulnerable to sun and light damage, which can contribute to a higher risk of developing skin cancer. It is crucial that protective clothing and a broad-spectrum sunscreen is used at all times before light exposure to minimise skin damage and, more importantly, the likelihood of skin cancers. For more information on how to stay safe in the sun click here.

Remember, self-care and gaining the proper emotional and medical support is key to managing vitiligo.

 

Further Reading

VITILIGO COMMUNIQUÉ I: A scientific understanding of vitiligo.

VITILIGO COMMUNIQUÉ II: The role of narrowband UVB (NB-UVB) as the standard of care for vitiligo.

CLINUVEL’s YouTube Channel, The Photoprotection Network, has a dedicated series of education videos on vitiligo. To visit the series, click here.

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