Vitiligo

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Vitiligo is a chronic (long-term) condition that causes pale, white patches to develop on the skin. The areas affected have little or no melanin.

Melanin is a dye-like substance that is produced by specialised skin cells called melanocytes. It gives your skin its colour and protects it from the sun's rays.

Where does vitiligo occur?

Vitiligo can affect any area of your skin, but most commonly occurs on skin that is exposed to the sun, such as your face, neck and hands.

Vitiligo is more noticeable in people whose skin is dark or tanned. The condition varies from person to person. For example, some people only get a few small, white patches that progress no further. Other people get bigger white patches that join up across large areas of their skin. See Vitiligo - symptoms for more information.

There is no way of predicting how much of your skin will be affected. The white patches are usually permanent.

How common is vitiligo?

It is estimated that about 1 in 100 people develop vitiligo. It usually starts to appear at around 20 years of age, although it can occur at any age. Men and women are equally affected, as are people of different ethnicities.

It is not clear what causes vitiligo. It is not infectious and you cannot catch it from contact with someone who has it.

Outlook

The white patches caused by vitiligo are usually permanent, although there are treatment options to improve the appearance of your skin. In general, combination treatments, such as phototherapy (treatment with light) and medication, give the best results.

In some cases, treatment may restore pigment (colour) to your patches but the effect does not usually last. Treatment cannot stop the condition from spreading. See Vitiligo - treatment for more information.

Skin camouflage cream is widely used to cover up the white patches, and it can help you live a normal life. The cream:

  • is blended to match your natural skin colour
  • is waterproof 
  • can last up to four days on your body or 12-18 hours on your face

Support groups are also very important, as you can speak to other people living with vitiligo. Your GP may suggest a group in your area. Charities such as The Vitiligo Society may be able to help.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

The main symptom of vitiligo is flat, white spots or patches on your skin. The first white patch usually develops where the skin has been exposed to the sun.

Initially, the vitiligo may start as a patch of skin that is paler than the rest of your skin. Gradually the patch will become completely white. Sometimes the centre of a patch may be white with pale skin around it. In areas where there are blood vessels under the skin, the patch may be slightly pink rather than white.

The edges of the patch may be smooth or irregular. Sometimes the edges are inflamed (red) or there is hyperpigmentation (brownish discolouration of the skin).

Vitiligo does not cause physical discomfort to your skin, such as dryness, but patches may occasionally be itchy.
 
If you have vitiligo, you may get a rash after you have been in the sun (photosensitivity).

Areas commonly affected by vitiligo

The areas most commonly affected by vitiligo include:

  • the skin around your mouth and eyes 
  • fingers and wrists
  • armpits 
  • groin 
  • genitals
  • inside your mouth

Sometimes vitiligo can develop where there are hair roots, such as on your scalp or eyelids. The lack of melanin in your skin can turn the hair in the affected area white or grey, causing white hair or white eyelashes.

Types of vitiligo

There are two main types of vitiligo:

  • non-segmental vitiligo
  • segmental vitiligo

In rare cases, it is possible for vitiligo to affect your whole body. This is known as universal or complete vitiligo.

Non-segmental vitiligo

In non-segmental vitiligo (also called bilateral or generalised vitiligo), the symptoms of vitiligo often appear on both sides of your body as symmetrical white patches. Symmetrical patches can appear on areas such as the:

  • backs of your hands
  • arms
  • eyes
  • knees
  • elbows
  • feet

Non-segmental vitiligo is the most common type of vitiligo, affecting up to 9 out of 10 people with the condition.

Segmental vitiligo

Sometimes the white patches may only affect one area of your body. This is known as segmental vitiligo, or unilateral or localised vitiligo.

Segmental vitiligo is less common than non-segmental vitiligo, although it is more common in children. Segmental vitiligo usually starts earlier and affects 3 in 10 children who have vitiligo.

How the symptoms of vitiligo develop

If you have vitiligo, it is difficult to predict whether your condition will spread from the original patch or how fast it may spread. It is likely that more white patches will appear. For some people this can happen quickly. For others, the patches may stay the same for months or years.

If the white patches appear symmetrically on more than one part of your body, the condition may progress quite slowly, with periods when the patches do not change. If you have white patches on only one area of your body, the condition may progress more rapidly.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Your skin gets its colour from a pigment called melanin, which is produced by skin cells called melanocytes.

If you have vitiligo, you do not have enough working melanocytes, so not enough melanin is produced in your skin. This causes white patches to develop on your skin or hair.

The causes of non-segmental and segmental vitiligo may be slightly different (see Vitiligo - symptoms more information about the two types).

Autoimmune conditions

Non-segmental vitiligo, the most common type of vitiligo, is thought to be an autoimmune condition. This means that your immune system (the body's natural defence system) does not work properly.

Instead of attacking foreign cells, such as bacteria, your immune system produces antibodies (infection-fighting proteins) that attack your body's own healthy cells and tissue.

If you have non-segmental vitiligo, your immune system produces antibodies that destroy the melanocyte skin cells that make melanin.

Vitiligo can be associated with other autoimmune conditions, such as hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland). See Vitiligo - complications for more information about this.

Neurochemicals

Segmental vitiligo, the less common type of vitiligo, is thought to be caused by chemicals released from the nerve endings in your skin ('neuro' means to do with nerves). These chemicals are poisonous to the melanocyte skin cells.

Risk factors

You may be at higher risk of developing non-segmental vitiligo if:

  • you have a family history of the condition; for example, one of your parents has it  
  • you have a family history of other autoimmune conditions - for example, one of your parents has pernicious anaemia (an autoimmune condition that affects your stomach)
  • you have another autoimmune condition 
  • you have melanoma (a type of skin cancer) or cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (a type of cancer of the lymphatic system) 
  • you have particular changes in your genes (units of genetic material) that are known to be linked to non-segmental vitiligo

Triggers

It is possible that the vitiligo may be triggered by particular events, for example:

  • stressful events, such as childbirth
  • damage to your skin, such as severe sunburn or cuts (this is known as the Koebner response) 
  • exposure to certain chemicals - for example, in your job

Vitiligo is not caused by an infection and you cannot catch it from someone else who has the condition.

Antibodies
Antibodies are proteins that are produced by the body to neutralise or destroy disease-carrying organisms and toxins.
Autoimmune condition
An autoimmune condition is when your immune system produces antibodies that should fight infections, but instead attack your body's healthy tissues.
Immune system
The immune system is the body's defence system, which helps protect it from disease, bacteria and viruses.
Lymphatic system
The lymphatic system is made up of a network of vessels (channels) and glands called lymph nodes that are distributed throughout the body. It helps fight infection and drain excess fluid from tissue.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Your GP should be able to identify vitiligo by its appearance, so tests are not usually needed. Your GP will need to see all of your patches of vitiligo to estimate how much of your body area is affected. They will also ask how long you have had the patches.

Your GP may ask you whether:

  • there is a history of vitiligo in your family
  • there is a history of other autoimmune conditions in your family 
  • you have injured the affected area of skin - for example, you have had sunburn or a severe rash there
  • you tan easily in the sun, or whether you burn 
  • any areas have got better without treatment or whether they are getting worse
  • you have tried any treatments already

Your GP may also ask you about the impact that vitiligo has on your life. For example:

  • how much it affects your confidence and self-esteem
  • whether it affects your job

Wood's lamp

If one is available, your GP may use an ultraviolet lamp called a Wood's lamp to look at your skin in more detail. You will need to be in a dark room and the lamp will be held 10-13cm (4-5in) away from your skin.

Under the ultraviolet light, the patches of vitiligo will be easier to see. This can help your GP tell the difference between vitiligo and other skin conditions, such as pityriasis versicolor (a yeast infection that causes a loss of pigment in small, round patches).

Other autoimmune conditions

Non-segmental vitiligo, the most common type of vitiligo, is closely associated with other autoimmune conditions. Your GP may therefore assess you to see if you have any symptoms that could suggest an autoimmune condition, such as:

  • being thirsty and needing to urinate often (signs of diabetes)
  • being tired and lacking in energy (signs of Addison's disease)

Your GP may also take a sample of blood to test how well your thyroid gland is functioning. Your thyroid gland is found in your neck, and it produces hormones that control the body's growth and metabolism.

You may need your thyroid tested once a year in case you develop an autoimmune condition that affects your thyroid, such as an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism). 

Autoimmune condition
An autoimmune condition is when your immune system (the body's natural defence system) produces antibodies (proteins) that should fight infections, but instead attack your body's healthy tissues.
Hormones
Hormones are groups of powerful chemicals that are produced by the body and have a wide range of effects.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

There is no known cure for vitiligo, but treatment may improve your skin's appearance by restoring pigment (colour) to your patches. However, the effects of treatment are not usually permanent, and it cannot control the spread of the condition.

Treatment for vitiligo is not always successful. See Vitiligo - complications for more information about this.

Your GP may begin treating your condition with:

  • sun safety advice 
  • a referral for camouflage creams 
  • topical corticosteroids

Your GP may suggest that no further treatment is necessary if, for example, you only have a small patch of vitiligo or you have very fair skin anyway. If you need further treatment, you may be referred to a dermatologist (specialist in treating skin conditions).

Protection from the sun

If you have vitiligo, you must protect your skin from the sun and avoid sunbeds.
 
When skin is exposed to sunlight, it produces a pigment called melanin to help protect it from ultraviolet light. If you have vitiligo, there is not enough melanin in your skin, so it is not protected. Sunburn is a real risk.

Always apply a high-factor sun cream, ideally with sun protection factor (SPF) 30 or above, to protect your skin from sunburn and long-term damage. This is particularly important if you have fair skin.

See the Health A-Z topic about Sunburn for more information and advice about protecting your skin.

Protecting your skin from the sun will also minimise tanning, which will make your vitiligo less noticeable.

Skin camouflage

Skin camouflage involves applying coloured creams to the white patches on your skin. These creams are specially made to match your natural skin colour. The cream blends in the white patches with the rest of your skin, making them unnoticeable.

You can also get skin camouflage cream that contains sun block or has an SPF rating.

Self-tanning lotion (fake tan) may also help to cover vitiligo. Some types can last for several days before you need to reapply them. Self-tanning lotion is available from most pharmacies.

Topical corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are any type of medicine that contains steroids, a type of hormone. Hormones are chemicals produced by the body that have a wide range of effects. Topical means the medicine is applied to the skin, such as a cream or ointment. 

See the Health A-Z topic about Topical corticosteroids for more information about this type of medicine.

Topical corticosteroids are unlicensed for the treatment of vitiligo (see box, left). But they can sometimes stop the spread of the patches, and may restore some of your original skin colour. Your GP may prescribe a topical corticosteroid cream to adults if:

  • you have non-segmental vitiligo on less than 10% of your body
  • you want further treatment (sun protection advice and camouflage creams are enough for some people) 
  • the treatment is not for your face
  • you are not pregnant
  • you understand and accept the risk of side effects

Using topical corticosteroids

Your GP may prescribe a cream or an ointment, depending on what you prefer and where it will be used. Ointments tend to be greasier. Creams are better in your joints - for example, inside your elbows. Possible corticosteroids that may be prescribed include:

  • fluticasone propionate
  • betamethasone valerate 
  • hydrocortisone butyrate

Your GP will tell you how to apply the cream or ointment to the patches and how much you should use (see the box, left). You normally need to apply the treatment once a day.

After one month your GP will ask you to return so that they can see how well the treatment is working and check for any side effects. If your vitiligo is not improving or the treatment is causing side effects, you may need to stop using the corticosteroids.

After another month, your GP will see how much your vitiligo has improved. If it has not, you may be referred to a dermatologist (see below). If your vitiligo has improved slightly, you may continue treatment but have a two-week break from treatment every three weeks. You may also be referred to a dermatologist.

If the vitiligo has improved, treatment will be stopped. 

Your GP may take photos of your vitiligo throughout your treatment to monitor any signs of improvement. If you have a camera, you may also want to take photos to keep an eye on your condition.

Side effects

Side effects of topical corticosteroids include:

  • streaks or lines in your skin (striae)
  • thinning of your skin (atrophy)
  • visible blood vessels appearing (telangiectasia)
  • excess hair growth (hypertrichosis) contact dermatitis
  •  (inflammation of your skin)
  • acne (spots)

Referral

You GP may refer you to a dermatologist if:

  • they are unsure about your diagnosis
  • you are pregnant and need treatment 
  • more than 10% of your body is affected by vitiligo 
  • you are distressed about your condition 
  • your face is affected and you want further treatment 
  • you cannot use topical corticosteroids because of the risk of side effects 
  • you have segmental vitiligo and want further treatment 
  • treatment with topical corticosteroids has not worked

Children with vitiligo who need treatment will also be referred to a dermatologist, particularly if their parents are distressed about their condition.

In some cases, you may be prescribed strong topical corticosteroids (see above) while you are waiting to be seen by a dermatologist.
 
Some treatments that your dermatologist may recommend are described below.

Topical pimecrolimus or tacrolimus

Pimecrolimus and tacrolimus are a type of medicine called calcineurin inhibitors that are normally used to treat eczema. They are unlicensed for the treatment of vitiligo (see box, left).

Pimecrolimus or tacrolimus may be used to treat vitiligo in children or adults. They can cause side effects, such as:

  • burning or pain 
  • making the skin more sensitive to sunlight
  • facial flushing (redness) and skin irritation if you drink alcohol

Phototherapy

Phototherapy (treatment with light) may be used for children or adults if:

  • topical treatments have not worked 
  • the vitiligo is widespread
  • the vitiligo is having a significant impact on their quality of life

Evidence suggests that phototherapy, particularly when combined with other treatments, has a positive effect on vitiligo.

During phototherapy, your skin is exposed to ultraviolet A (UVA) or ultraviolet B (UVB) light from a special lamp. You may first take a medicine called psoralen, which makes your skin more sensitive to the light. You can take psoralen by mouth (orally), or you can add it to your bath water.

This type of treatment is sometimes called PUVA (psoralen and ultraviolet A light).

Phototherapy may increase the risk of skin cancer because of the extra exposure to UVA rays. Your dermatologist should discuss this risk with you before you decide to have phototherapy.

Although you may be able to buy special sunlamps to use at home for light therapy, these are not recommended. They are not as effective as the phototherapy you will receive in hospital. The lamps are also not regulated, so they may not be safe. 

Skin grafts

A skin graft is a surgical procedure that involves removing healthy skin from an unaffected area of the body and using it to cover an area where the skin has been damaged or lost. To treat vitiligo, a skin graft can be used to cover the white patch.

Skin grafts may be considered for adults in areas that are affecting your appearance if:

  • no new white patches have appeared in the last 12 months 
  • the white patches have not gotten worse in the last 12 months 
  • your vitiligo was not triggered by damage to your skin, such as severe sunburn (the Koebner response)

This type of treatment is time-consuming and is not widely available in the UK. It has a risk of scarring and will not be considered for children.

Depigmentation

Depigmentation may be recommended for adults who have vitiligo on more than 50% of their bodies. It may not be widely available.

During depigmentation, a lotion is painted onto the normal skin to bleach away the pigment and make it the same colour as the depigmented (white) skin. A hydroquinone-based medication is used, which has to be applied continuously to prevent the skin from re-pigmenting.

Hydroquinone can cause side effects, such as:

  • redness
  • itching 
  • stinging

Depigmentation is usually permanent and leaves the skin with no protection from the sun. Re-pigmentation (when the colour returns) can occur, and may differ from your original skin colour.

Other treatments

Your dermatologist may recommend trying more than one treatment: for example, phototherapy combined with a topical treatment. Other possible treatments include:

  • excimer lasers - high-energy beams of light that are used in laser eye treatment, but may also be used in phototherapy 
  • vitamin D analogues, such as calcipotriol, may also be used with phototherapy
  • azathioprine, a medicine that suppresses your immune system (the body's natural defence system), may be used with phototherapy 
  • oral prednisolone, a type of corticosteroid, has also been used with phototherapy, although it can cause side effects

Complementary therapies

Some complementary therapies claim to relieve or prevent vitiligo. But there is no evidence to support their effectiveness, therefore more research is needed before they can be recommended.

There is very limited evidence that Ginkgo biloba, a herbal remedy, may benefit people with non-segmental vitiligo. However, there is currently not enough evidence to recommend it.

If you decide to use herbal remedies, check with your GP first, as some remedies can react unpredictably with other medication or make it less effective.

How much topical corticosteroid to use

  • Topical corticosteroids are measured in a standard unit called the fingertip unit (FTU).
  • One FTU is the amount of topical steroid squeezed along an adult's fingertip.
  • One FTU is enough to treat an area of skin twice the size of an adult's hand.

Counselling and support groups

If you have vitiligo, you may find it helpful to join a vitiligo support group. This can help you to understand more about your condition and come to terms with your skin’s appearance.

Charities, such as The Vitiligo Society, may be able to put you in touch with local support groups (you may need to become a member first). Your GP may also be able to suggest a local group.

If you have psychosocial symptoms – for example, your condition is causing you distress, your GP may refer you to a psychologist or a counsellor for treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Complications after treatment

Treatment for vitiligo is not always successful, and any improvements may not last. It is quite likely that the white patches will come back.

Some areas of your body, such as your face, may respond better to treatment than others. Children with vitiligo may respond better to treatment than adults.

Sunburn

If you have vitiligo, you need to be particularly careful to protect your skin from the sun.

Self-esteem

Vitiligo does not affect your physical health. However, if you have vitiligo you may feel distressed and unhappy about how your skin looks. It may seriously affect your self-confidence, regardless of how much or how little your skin is affected. It can cause embarrassment, and may affect you at work and in your personal relationships.

If vitiligo affects your self-confidence, speak to your GP about it. They will be able to give you advice and information about counselling and support groups.

Other autoimmune conditions

Vitiligo is thought to be an autoimmune condition (see Vitiligo - causes for more information), and it can be associated with other autoimmune conditions. Around a third of people with vitiligo may also have another autoimmune condition, such as:

  • thyroid conditions, such as hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
  • pernicious anaemia - an autoimmune condition that affects your stomach
  • diabetes - a long-term condition caused by too much sugar in the blood
  • systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) - a type of lupus that can affect most of the body's tissues and organs
  • Addison's disease - an autoimmune condition that affects the adrenal glands and the hormones they produce

Other complications

Sometimes, vitiligo can affect your eyes. For example:

  • a lack of pigment in parts of your eye, such as the layers of tissue that surround the outer surface of your retina (pigment epithelium) or support your retina (choroid)
  • inflammation in part of your eye (uveitis)

Complications of vitiligo can also include partial loss of hearing (hypoacusis).

Adrenal glands
The adrenal glands are two small, triangular-shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys, high up inside the back of the abdominal wall.
Autoimmune condition
An autoimmune condition is when your immune system (the body's natural defence system) produces antibodies (proteins) that should fight infections, but instead attack your body's healthy tissues.
Hormones
Hormones are groups of powerful chemicals that are produced by the body and have a wide range of effects.
Inflammation
Inflammation is the body's response to infection, irritation or injury, which causes redness, swelling, pain and sometimes a feeling of heat in the affected area.
Retina
The retina is the nerve tissue lining the back of the eye, which senses light and colour, and sends it to the brain as electrical impulses.
Thyroid gland
The thyroid gland is found in the neck. It produces hormones that are released into the bloodstream to control the body's growth and metabolism (the process that turns food into energy).

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

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