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Vitiligo: Who gets and causes

Who gets vitiligo?

Millions of people worldwide have vitiligo. Nearly half get it before they reach 21 years of age. Most will have vitiligo for the rest of their lives. It is very rare for vitiligo to disappear.

Vitiligo can affect your hair

The patch of white hair near this 22-year-old man's part is caused by vitiligo.

Patch of white hair near young man's part caused by vitiligo

Vitiligo occurs about equally in people of all skin colors and races. About half the people who get vitiligo are male and half are female.

The risk of getting vitiligo increases if a person has:

  • A close blood relative who has vitiligo

  • An autoimmune disease, especially Hashimoto’s disease (a thyroid disease) or alopecia areata (causes hair loss)

What causes vitiligo?

Vitiligo develops when cells called melanocytes die. These cells give our skin and hair color.

Scientists do not completely understand why these cells die. One type of vitiligo, non-segmental vitiligo, may be an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease develops when the body mistakes a part of itself as foreign. If the body mistakes melanocytes as foreigners, it will attack and kill these cells.

Studies suggest that the other type of vitiligo, segmental vitiligo, has a different cause. This type seems to develop when something in the body’s nervous system goes awry.

Related AAD resources

Image used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.

Gawkrodger DJ, Ormerod AD, Shaw L et al. Guideline for the diagnosis and management of vitiligo. Br J Dermatol 2008; 159: 1051-76.

Halder RM. “Vitiligo.” Forum presented at the 2011 American Academy of Dermatology Annual Meeting: New Orleans. February 2011.

Mazereeuw-Hautier J, Bezio S, Mahe E et al. Segmental and nonsegmental childhood vitiligo has distinct clinical characteristics: a prospective observational study. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010; 62: 945-9.