What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a chronic skin condition in which sections of the uppermost layer of the skin lose their normal color, causing white patches to appear. The skin’s pigment is called melanin, which is produced by special cells, called melanocytes. When these cells are damaged or become unhealthy, they lose their ability to produce their normal skin color. Some areas commonly affected by vitiligo include the hands, feet, arms, face, and lips, but it can appear anywhere on the body. Although vitiligo causes no physical discomfort, the psychological stress of the condition may take an emotional toll.

What are the common causes of vitiligo?

Vitiligo CauseAlthough the exact cause is unknown, dermatologists consider vitiligo to be a result of improper functioning of the immune system. This is known as an autoimmune disorder, in which the body produces antibodies that attack its own tissues – in this case, the melanocytes - mistaking them for foreign material. Research also suggests that it may also be a result of viral infections that cause the cessation of melanin production, or there may even be a genetic cause. Roughly 30 percent of patients diagnosed with vitiligo have a family history of the disease. Vitiligo is also often associated with autoimmune thyroid disease.

Vitiligo may also be brought on by contact with chemicals, particularly phenols, a type of chemical found in hair dye, household stains, and similar products. Environmental toxins in the air, food, and water, and the resulting free radicals, can accumulate within the body, causing cellular damage.

Other studies have linked the gradual death of melanocytes to emotional stress. Stress causes the body to secrete cortisol, an important hormone in the body that helps us cope with stress. The problem arises when we are subjected to chronic stress. In this case, the cortisol does damage to the body, including damage to the cells that produce skin color, due to free radicals and oxidative stress.

Vitiligo is also believed to be caused in part by deficiencies of certain nutrients in the diet. With a diet that is mainly comprised of denatured foods, such as white flour, white sugar and canned products which are low in nutrients and mixed with industrial preservatives and colors, the body is not getting all of the nutrients it needs to keep the skin in a healthy state. A diet rich in whole, fresh, and unprocessed foods, including plenty of dark green vegetables, would be advised for someone with vitiligo.

There are also some false beliefs regarding causes of vitiligo. For example, drinking milk after eating fish, or consuming pumpkin and milk together or even onions with milk – there is no scientific basis for these claims. Vitiligo also is not caused by bacterial infection.

What are the two types of vitiligo?

There are two types of vitiligo: segmental and non-segmental. The segmental type tends to spread more rapidly than the non-segmental type. Segmental vitiligo affects only one side of the body. After growing for 1 year, it usually stops spreading. This type occurs mostly in children, and is not associated with autoimmune or thyroid disorders.

Non-segmental vitiligo is the most common of the two types. It is characterized by new patches appearing on both sides of the body equally over a particular area. It often begins on the hands or face. It is chronic in nature, and tends to affect people over the course of their lives. It may affect a small area, or even the entire body.

Who is likely to get Vitiligo?

The causes of the disease are multifactorial and may encompass both family history and the environment. It affects all races and both sexes. Other medical conditions, such as hyperthyroidism, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes mellitus, psoriasis, Addison’s disease, pernicious anemia, alopecea areata and systemic lupus erythematosus, may be associated with the onset of vitiligo. There is still more research to be done to establish a definitive connection between vitiligo and other auto-immune diseases.

At what age is vitiligo likely to occur?

Vitiligo can occur at any stage of life, and all races and age-groups are vulnerable to it equally. However, there are certain populations in which the incidence is around 16%, while globally it is currently at 1% overall.

The most commonly affected areas are the face, hands, neck, back and wrists. Often viewed as a stigma, it is a condition that brings about a tremendous amount of stress and even embarrassment that may spiral into depression and low self-esteem issues. Although vitiligo may cause great psychological stress and embarrassment, there is no physical pain from the condition. The only physical symptom may be itching, and this occurs only in the minority of cases.

What are the symptoms and course of the disease?

The presence of pale and patched areas on the extremities of the body or other areas of the skin which develop into noticeable lesions is a clear indication of the disease. Vitiligo usually begins as a singular spot that spreads to other areas of the body, and depending on the type, it may develop into larger patches. Vitiligo is most noticeable among people with a tanned or darker complexion. The increase in spots is noticed as they merge into one another, until larger or most areas of the body are covered with white patches.
The spread of vitiligo is usually slow and progressive. Vitiligo spots can vary in size, shape, intensity of the loss of color and in the profile of their distribution. Vitiligo often becomes a chronic skin condition, while in some cases it may even resolve on its own.

Is Vitiligo Contagious?

Vitiligo is not contagious. It does not spread by contact, food or otherwise. It is also not a pre-cancerous condition.

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