Is vitiligo a medical condition?
Vitiligo causes the skin to lose its natural color. Because this affects a person’s appearance, many people consider vitiligo a “cosmetic problem.” Cosmetic means the problem only affects the way a person looks.
But vitiligo is more than a “cosmetic problem.” It is a medical condition. People get vitiligo when their body attacks its own melanocytes, the cells that give our skin, hair, and other areas of the body color.
These cells live in the skin, hair, lips, mouth (inside of), nostrils, genitals, rectum, eyes, and inner ear. When the body attacks them, the result can be a few light-colored patches on the skin. Others see widespread loss of skin color. Hair can develop a white streak. This can happen to hair anywhere on the body, including the top of the head, an eyebrow, or eyelash. If the body attacks these cells in the inner ear, the person may develop hearing loss.
What causes the body to attack these cells is not entirely understood. Vitiligo may be an autoimmune disease. These diseases happen when the person’s immune system mistakenly attacks some part of the body.
Having a white forelock (A) may increase the risk of developing hearing loss. White spots that look like confetti on the skin (B) may mean a higher risk of developing an autoimmune disease. More research is needed to prove this.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ in the neck. Some people who have vitiligo develop thyroid disease. A blood test can tell whether your thyroid is working as it should. If not, medicine can help alleviate symptoms, such as feeling cold when others feel comfortable, fatigue, constipation, and trouble losing weight.
Important to get medical care
Many people who have vitiligo are often otherwise healthy.
Even so, it’s important to find a doctor like a dermatologist who knows about vitiligo. People who have vitiligo have a higher risk of getting some other medical conditions.
You can also get painful sunburns on the skin that has lost color.
Seeing a board-certified dermatologist can help with the following.
Getting an accurate diagnosis: A dermatologist can tell what is causing the white spots on your skin. It could be vitiligo or another skin disease.
Sunburn: A dermatologist can create a customized plan to help you avoid painful sunburns. The plan may include using sunscreen that right for you and wearing sun protective clothing when appropriate.
The inner ear contains melanocytes — the cells that give our skin and other parts of the body color. If the body attacks these cells in the ear, hearing loss can occur. It’s estimated that between 12% and 38% of people with vitiligo have some hearing loss. Most people are unaware that they have hearing loss. Seeing a doctor who knows about vitiligo can help find hearing loss.
Problems with the eyes: Some people with vitiligo develop changes in their vision and abnormal tear production. If your dermatologist sees signs of this, you will be referred to an eye doctor. These changes are best treated early.
Autoimmune diseases: Some people who have vitiligo develop an autoimmune disease. Being under a dermatologist’s care can help find these diseases earlier when treatment can be more effective.
Anxiety and depression: Researchers have found that many people who have vitiligo often feel anxious and embarrassed around others. It’s easy to understand why. People often stare and make rude remarks. Some people are obviously frightened. Facing this day in and day out can take a toll on a person’s self-image. Low self-esteem can develop, which can lead to depression.
If you feel anxious or depressed, a dermatologist may be able to refer you to someone who can help.
Vitiligo treatment improving and researchers looking for a cure
We now have more treatments than ever before that can restore lost skin color. New medications, improved light treatments, and advances in surgery are giving patients better results.
Encouraging new treatments are likely to come. Researchers are also trying to find a cure for this common medical condition.
Image A: Used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.
Image B: Used with permission of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. J Am Acad Dermatol 2015;73:274.
Other images: Getty Images
Ezzedine K, Sheth V, et al. “Vitiligo is not a cosmetic disease.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2015;73:883-5.
Harris JH. “Emerging treatments for vitiligo.” Session presented during symposium 006 “Vitiligo” at the 74th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2016 Mar 4-8; Washington DC.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. “What is vitiligo? Fast facts.” Last accessed March 22, 2016.
Parsad D Dogra S, et al. “Quality of life in patients with vitiligo.” Health Qual Life Outcomes. 2003 Oct 23;1:58.
Sosa JJ, Currimbhoy SD, et al. “Confetti-like depigmentation: A potential sign of rapidly progressing vitiligo.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2015;73:272-5.