What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo is the name given to the condition where a person starts losing colour of the skin in patches. This is as a result of the melanocytes (which produces our skin colour) dying. This disease can start suddenly and can affect any area of the skin, with the face, hands, feet and groin areas being the most commonly involved. Vitiligo is very common in the population and though it affects people of all skin colours, it tends to be more apparent in darker skin, due to the skin contrast. This disease is only confined to the skin mucous membranes and does not usually have any symptoms.

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Even though the only problem with vitiligo is the change in the appearance of the skin, it can often be life-changing. Those afflicted with the condition and sometimes, even their families face social stigmatisation which can lead to low self-esteem, embarrassment, anxiety, frustration, and even serious depression.

Types of vitiligo

The two main types of vitiligo are the generalized type and the segmental type.

In the generalized type, which is more common, the white patches will appear on both sides of the body e.g., if the right hand gets a patch, the left one will also be symmetrically involved. This type of vitiligo can spread and involve the whole body. On the other hand, the segmental vitiligo affects only one area of the body and almost never spread to bigger areas.

Causes of vitiligo

Though the exact cause of vitiligo is still unknown, it is widely believed that an autoimmune process leads to the death of the melanocytes. In simpler words, the person’s immune system is faulty and instead of attacking foreign cells like viruses and bacteria, it attacks the melanocytes and destroys it. In some people with vitiligo, they can also suffer from other autoimmune diseases like pernicious anaemia or thyroid disease. In a few patients, this disease can also be inherited.

Vitiligo can start appearing without any trigger factors, however, in some, the disease tends to worsen in times of stress. Skin damage, such as severe sunburn, cuts and exposure to certain chemicals can initiate the white patches.

Signs or symptoms

It may start as a small white spot that differs from the normal skin tone, but, as time goes on, this spot will become paler until it turns white. How the patches develop are wholly unpredictable. For some, they can develop and expand slowly over time, while for others it will never progress much further than a spot or two. Although rare, in some cases, the patches will develop rapidly. In some exceptionally rare cases some people have even experienced ‘spontaneous re-pigmentation’ of the skin.

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There aren’t that many symptoms associated with vitiligo. Some have described an itching sensation caused by skin inflammation, resulting in a slight red tone plus soreness and dryness. One thing to also consider is that although vitiligo symptoms will present both physically and visually, they can also affect someone’s emotional wellbeing due to the stress involved with an ongoing condition.

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Though vitiligo is a lifelong condition, it can be improved with various treatments. It is highly recommended that a person should consult a dermatology clinic as soon as a white patch is noted. The doctor will make the correct diagnosis and start treatments immediately. Some studies have showed that early treatment can control vitiligo in up to ninety percent of patients and also help repigment most areas of the skin. It has to be noted that some areas like the lips, finger tips and hands are very difficult to treat.

photoPatients can be treated with oral medications, creams and most importantly, phototherapy. Some can benefit from the Excimer laser. In patients whose vitiligo is no longer progressing and have small areas of depigmented skin, the use of blister grafting or micropigmentation can make a huge difference. Whilst blister grafting works by transplanting the person’s own melanocytes into the affected areas, micropigmentation on the other hand is a tattooing procedure where the colour is closely matched with the individual’s skin.

Vitiligo myth-busting

Myth 1: Vitiligo is contagious.

Vitiligo is neither contagious nor infectious, and it cannot be passed through contact

 

Myth 2: There are various myths and superstitions about vitiligo, for example – it is a punishment for wrongdoing, or something called past karma. Some people also believe that it has been caused by eating meat or canned food.

This is absolutely untrue. Vitiligo is not related to food and changing to become a vegetarian will not help the condition.

 

Myth 3: Vitiligo patients are inferior to others physically or mentally.

Please remember that this condition only affects the skin. It has no connection with any other body parts, organs, or intelligence level.

 

Myth 4: Vitiligo is related to other skin diseases such as skin cancer and leprosy

Vitiligo is a completely separate condition and not related to skin cancer, leprosy or other skin conditions