Vitiligo is a common condition which makes the skin, and sometimes the hair, turn white in patches. This is due to damage of the pigment producing cells of our skin, called Melanocytes.
It is estimated that 1% of humanity suffers from this autoimmune condition. Anyone can develop the condition, whatever their skin color or ethnic origin. Vitiligo can begin at any age but about 50% of people who get it. Get it before the age of twenty.
In Vitiligo, the immune system attacks the body’s own skin and connective tissues. The most common and painful myth for most vitiligo patients is that it is contagious and that just by touching someone you can get it. It’s NOT infectious and Vitiligo suffers cannot spread the disease.
Generalized vitiligo is the most common and affects both sides of the body. In some cases only one half of the body is affected (segmental vitiligo); this variant has limited progression and is more difficult to treat. Vitiligo can spread to cover the entire body surface (universal vitiligo) but this is not usual.
The way the condition develops is unpredictable. Some people may not notice a change in their condition for many years; for others it can spread quite quickly. In some cases, the white patches can regain their color without the person having any treatment. This is more likely with children. However, it is very unusual for the condition to be resolved completely without treatment.
The main available treatments are:
- Steroid creams which can be prescribed by your doctor, which are used for up to 2 months or longer under close supervision.
- Light treatment, (narrowband UVB and PUVA) for which you would have to go to hospital 2 or 3 times a week. This is sometimes given with medication as well.
No cure for vitiligo has been discovered yet. These treatments are very effective in bringing back color to the white skin patches and slowing down its progress. The effects of treatment vary from one person to another. In some cases, treatment can bring about complete re-pigmentation.
Treatments may not work on all areas of the body and they do not work for everyone. If color does return to the white patches, there is still a risk of the vitiligo coming back at a later date.
Recent research suggests that the effectiveness of treatments depends less on a person’s age than where the vitiligo is and when it started:
- Treating vitiligo on the face seems to be particularly effective.
- Children are more likely to be more responsive to treatment.
- Using treatments when vitiligo first develops is more effective than later on.
- Small areas are easier to treat than larger ones.
- Bleaching (depigmentation treatment) and skin grafting are used very occasionally, in specific circumstances.