Vitiligo is considered an autoimmune disease that causes body defense mechanisms to destroy pigment, forming melanocytes in the skin, resulting in disfiguring white patches. The destruction of these cells often extends to mucous membranes and may affect the eyes, mouth, nose, and ears, as well as genitals. It affects people of any ethnicity and may develop at any age, although the majority of patients develop it before the age of 21.
Proper diagnosis is the first step toward preventing further damage and restoring color to the affected areas. Identification is commonly based on the visual pattern and location of depigmentation, family history, and ancillary symptoms. Your doctor may perform a simple examination. If other symptoms indicate a need for it, a needle biopsy and a blood test may be required to evaluate possible aggravating factors of vitiligo such as thyroid disease, or low vitamin D.
There are two types of vitiligo—one is the common form of generalized vitiligo affecting the entire body. The second type, known as segmental, affects only one side of the body. Then, there is a subgroup called marginal vitiligo. It appears with raised borders and a scattered pattern of depigmentation. All pigment is lost in the other subtype, called universal, which is a rare condition.
Most patients seek professional help when pale pink or white areas appear on their skin. They often complain of first having an itchy feeling in the location where the spots appear. The vitiligo spots don’t cause pain and may not spread to another area for months or even years. Patients may have other symptoms that are related to autoimmune disorders or diseases, as well.
For years, vitiligo treatments were limited to basic comfort measures and a few topical ointments. Thanks to a surge in research, new treatments have proven successful in limiting the spread of the disease and restoring color to depigmented areas that are sustained for up to one year. Not all skin responds the same or lasts as long. It is individualized both in therapy and results.
Recent studies show specific supplements, such as selenium, may be recommended by your dermatologist. Surgical interventions have been employed, such as skin grafts or even tattooing the color back in the whitened area. Your dermatologist will determine the best line of care for your form of vitiligo.