Vitiligo is the patchy loss of skin pigmentation due to an auto-immune attack by the body's own immune system on skin melanocytes. It frequently begins in late adulthood with patches of unpigmented skin appearing on extremities. The patches may grow, or remain constant in size. Occasional small areas may repigment, as they are recolonized by melanocytes.
In some cases, mild trauma to an area of skin seems to cause new patches - for example around the ankles (caused by friction with shoes or sneakers).
The condition is medically harmless, other than the problem that the affected skin areas have no protection against sunlight - they burn but never tan. However, if the skin is naturally dark, the visual effect of the white patches may be considered disfiguring by some. (If the affected person is of pale-skinned ancestry, the patches can be at least be rendered less visible by the expedient of avoiding sunlight and the tanning of unaffected skin.)
In some cultures there is a stigma attached to having vitiligo. Those affected with the condition are sometimes thought to be evil or diseased and are sometimes shunned by others in the community.
Because of the social stigma sometimes experienced by people with vitiligo, steroids have been used to remove the white patches, but are not very effective. Other more dramatic treatments include chemically treating the patient to remove all pigment from the skin to present a uniform skin tone. Current experimental treatments include exposure to narrow-band UV light, which seems to have the effect of blurring the edges of patches, and lightly freckling the affected areas.
Are you a Doctor, Pharmacist, PA or a Nurse?
Join the Doctors Lounge online medical community
Editorial activities: Publish, peer review, edit online articles.
Ask a Doctor Teams: Respond to patient questions and discuss challenging presentations with other members.