While vitiligo does not have a direct effect on the individual’s health, people with the condition may be concerned about social stigma or even issues surrounding ethnic identity, writes Maha El Akoum.
Vitiligo is a relatively common, long-term skin condition that affects between 0.5 to 2% of the global population. Depending on the region and age group, statistics from the Vitiligo Research Fund estimates that the prevalence can even reach up to 9.98% in some areas.
Vitiligo is not life-threatening or contagious and can develop at any age; however, it often appears in people between the ages of 10 to 30 years.
What is vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a skin condition that causes lighter patches to develop on the skin of the affected individual. While people from all racial backgrounds can be affected, it is often more noticeable in people with darker skin colour.
Vitiligo happens when the skin loses pigmentation. The cells in the body that are responsible for the skin and hair colour are called melanocytes. When a person has vitiligo, these melanocytes are destroyed. This then causes patches in the skin and hair to become lighter. Scientists remain uncertain about what causes these melanocytes to die.
Even though vitiligo does not have a direct effect on the individual’s health, people with the condition may be concerned about social stigma or even issues surrounding ethnic identity. This may, in turn, influence the emotional health of the affected individual, causing them to experience stress, low self-esteem, self-consciousness, stigmatisation, depression and/or anxiety.
Are there different types of vitiligo?
There are two main types of vitiligo: non-segmental vitiligo and segmental vitiligo.
Non-segmental vitiligo is the most common of the two, and is also commonly referred to as bilateral vitiligo, vitiligo vulgaris, or generalised vitiligo. In this type, the patches of pigment loss appear on both sides of the affected individual’s body, and will often begin developing on the hands, feet and around the mouth or eyes.
People with non-segmental vitiligo experience a rapid loss of pigment at the beginning that is then followed by a pause in pigment loss. This loss may re-start again at a later stage in time, pause again and then progress in the same pattern. Another characteristic of this type of vitiligo is that the patches of colour loss expand gradually and cover larger areas of the body.
Segmental vitiligo, also referred to as unilateral vitiligo, tends to appear on only one area of the body such as the arm or the face. People with this type of vitiligo usually find that it develops at a younger age, and then stops after a year or so.
What causes vitiligo?
The exact cause of vitiligo remains unknown. However, some factors may influence its development. These factors include:
- Stress. Studies have shown that stress influences the onset of vitiligo, and that people affected generally showed high perceived levels of stress. Therefore, this indicates that stress could trigger the onset or progress of vitiligo in people at a risk of developing the disorder.
- Genetics. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, the risk of developing vitiligo increases when the individual has a close blood relative who has vitiligo, or when the individual has an existing autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s disease or alopecia areata. Studies suggest that vitiligo itself might be an autoimmune disorder (a condition that causes the immune system to attack its own tissues and organs), however, more research is needed to confirm this.
- Chemicals. Certain chemicals have been proven to play a role in the development of vitiligo. In vitiligo that is chemically induced, exposure to these chemicals causes the death of melanocytes. Examples of these types of chemicals include: monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone (an antioxidant), alta (a cosmetic colouring agent), and phenol (a chemical found in detergents, disinfectants, drugs and some cosmetics).
Can vitiligo be cured?
There is currently no cure for vitiligo, however, there are some treatments available that can help with the symptoms. Type of treatment depends on the type of vitiligo and the desired outcome. These treatments can include non-medical treatments such as self-tanning, make up and skin dye.
Other treatments (medical) can be topical medicines, light treatment and light therapies, depigmentation and even surgery.
Even though in most cases people who have vitiligo are otherwise healthy, it is important to get a medical consultation to make sure you get an accurate diagnosis. In addition, people with vitiligo are at a higher risk of developing other medical conditions (such as autoimmune diseases, problems with the eyes and anxiety/ depression) making medical consultation all the more crucial.
Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH].