Vitiligo: Knowing the signs

Vitiligo is a disease affecting the pigment cells in the skin, causing patches of skin to fade and lighten. The symptoms can appear in one area of the body, or affect many areas at once. The cause of vitiligo remains unknown, although it is generally believed to be an autoimmune condition that causes the body to attack healthy cells, namely, the melanocytes. The disorder affects both men and women of all skin tones, however, it is far more noticeable in people of darker skin. Although vitiligo has no painful or harmful physical effects, it does have an impact on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the sufferer. 

Vitiligo symptoms

The characteristic white patches typically form in areas where the skin receives sunlight on a regular basis. These include the hands, feet, arms, face, and lips. Less common areas include the armpits, groin, around the mouth, eyes, nostrils, navel, genitals, and rectal area. Another common symptom of vitiligo is for sufferers’ hair to turn grey prematurely. Sufferers of a darker skin tone can also experience lightning inside their mouths. 

Possible causes

What causes the onset of vitiligo remains a mystery. Though as previously discussed, it is likely to be an autoimmune disease, therefore indicating genetic predisposition. Sunburn and emotional distress are also suspected to be causes of vitiligo, though the evidence to back up these theories is lacking. 

Vitiligo treatments

There are many treatments available for vitiligo which restore colour to the patches and even out the appearance of the skin. When advising a course of treatment, three factors get considered: the number of white patches; the extent to which the patches cover the body; and the sufferer’s treatment preference. As many treatments can have unwanted side-effects, it’s important for the sufferer to know the potential consequences of treatment. And that the treatment may take a long time to work, or not work at all.

Medical treatments for vitiligo include:

1. Topical creams applied to the white patches.

2. Oral medication.

3. Oral medication and ultraviolet A light (PUVA).

4. Removing colour from other areas so skin matches light patches.

Surgical treatments for vitiligo include:

1. Skin grafts from the patient’s own tissues. This is often recommended if the sufferer has small patches of vitiligo.

2. Tattooing small areas of skin so the patches appear darker.

Other treatments for vitiligo include:

1. Using sunscreens to protect the skin from sunburn and possible worsening of symptoms.

2. Using cosmetics (make-up) to cover the white patches. Concealers can be very effective.

3. Seeking counselling and support. This is important for all vitiligo sufferers, regardless of the severity of their condition.

Need a skin assessment? 

If you are experiencing unusual skin symptoms, don’t ignore them. Book a dermatological assessment with Dr Noks. She will analyse your skin and determine if you have any skin conditions or signs of diseases. After diagnosis, Dr Noks will recommend a course of action suited to your specific skin type and condition.