Michael Jackson may be the most famous person to have suffered from vitiligo, but nearly 4 million other people in the United States and about 100 million around the world struggle with the white spots and progressively fading skin of this distressing disease. They also face the stigma of having an unfamiliar condition that causes onlookers to gawk and jump to conclusions.
Vitiligo Awareness Month is the perfect time to dispel some of those misconceptions and set the record straight. Here at Easton Dermatology Associates, our providers explain what vitiligo is, who gets it and why, and how we treat this incurable condition.
Pronounced vit-il-EYE-go, this unpredictable disease develops when the cells (called melanocytes) that normally produce melanin either malfunction or die off. Without melanin, you have no pigment, so your skin, eyes, and hair can lose their color wherever vitiligo strikes.
Vitiligo doesn’t have any serious physical health complications. Although the white patches of skin may feel itchy or slightly painful for some people, most have no symptoms at all other than the loss of pigmentation.
Vitiligo isn’t contagious. Ignorance about this skin disease generates fear, confusion, stares, and insensitive comments. Some people with vitiligo feel ostracized by others, and some isolate themselves, which can lead to depression, low self-esteem, relationship problems, and workplaces challenges.
Information is the key to shattering the social stigma. Talk to our team about your treatment options, and keep abreast of the latest research. The Vitiligo Research Center has published a detailed brochure that can help you, your family, and your friends understand the disease and reduce the misconceptions.
Can vitiligo destroy all my melanin?
Yes, but that’s rare. Vitiligo comes in two main types and four subtypes, so where it affects you and how much area it covers depends on which type you have.
- Generalized vitiligo affects any part of your body and is the most common type. It starts and stops at unpredictable intervals throughout your life.
- Segmental vitiligo tends to affect one side of your body only and typically affects the hands and face.
- Mucosal vitiligo affects the pigments inside your mouth and sometimes the genitals.
- Focal vitiligo is the occurrence of the white spots, contained in a relatively small area.
- Trichrome vitiligo looks like a target of concentric circles: a white center with a ring of lighter pigmentation surrounded by normally colored skin.
- Universal vitiligo affects more than 80% of your skin’s pigment. It’s rare, but possible.
If you’re unsure which type you have, we can help define it for you.
Vitiligo — why me?
Despite many years of rigorous research, the exact cause of vitiligo still eludes us. We do know it’s genetic and involves a chain reaction in the immune system. We also know that certain events or substances can trigger the onset of vitiligo. These triggers may include:
- Intense psychological stress
- A change in your cells
- Severe sunburn
- Gastrointestinal parasites
- Hormonal changes
For most people, these are harmless events and conditions that don’t result in lasting physical consequences, but for those who are predisposed to vitiligo, it sets off an autoimmune response that kills their melanocytes.
Hopeful treatments for vitiligo
With no cure, the best way to approach vitiligo is to treat the symptoms, and you have four options.
Though covering your white patches doesn’t technically constitute a treatment, it’s the most common way to deal with the progressively fading pigment. Makeup and strategic clothing can certainly hide the symptoms, but in light of Vitiligo Awareness Month, it may be a good time to bare your patchy skin and help the world understand the disease.
Slow the progression
It may be possible to stop or slow the progression of vitiligo if it’s related to a thyroid disease. Although it’s still unclear why these two diseases are linked, studies show that about 20% of vitiligo patients have an autoimmune disorder (often thyroiditis), and about 57% of people with thyroid disease also have a skin condition (often vitiligo).
Treating your thyroid condition may control your vitiligo symptoms.
Some vitiligo patients, especially those who have more unpigmented than pigmented areas, opt to wipe out the rest of their natural color, so they have a more even-toned appearance.
Benoquin is a topical cream approved by the FDA to permanently depigment the skin surrounding your vitiligo patches.
If you want to repigment your colorless patches, try light therapy. At Easton Dermatology Associates, we offer state-of-the-art excimer laser treatments that deliver a high dose of ultraviolet light to your skin. It takes multiple treatments over several weeks, but you may be among the 70% of patients who respond well to this approach.
Although white patches may still appear in the future, excimer laser treatments can significantly improve your skin tone.
To find out more about vitiligo treatments, contact us at any of our three Maryland locations in Easton, Stevensville, or Salisbury.