White patches on your skin? Loss of pigmentation? Why do these happen to some people and not others? Why are some born with patches on their skin while others develop patches over time?
The 25 June 2022 is World Vitiligo Day, dedicated to the awareness of Vitiligo, an autoimmune disease that causes loss of skin colour in patches. Approximately 100 million people around the world are affected by the skin disease. While we are more aware of it now, due to social media and the use of models with Vitiligo in modern advertising campaigns, the condition is still not a very well understood disease in the public realm.
What Exactly Is Vitiligo?
You may recognise Vitiligo from celebrities like Michael Jackson. According to the Vitiligo Research Foundation, Vitiligo is a non-lethal, non-communicable, immune-mediated and generally progressive skin disease that creates milky white patches of irregular shape on the skin. A specific type of leukoderma, Vitiligo is the most common form of pigmentary disorders, equally affecting all races, age groups and social strata.
The causes and development of this disease are complex and involve the interplay of multiple factors – however, the exact pathogenesis is not well known. Other than the appearance of white spots and occasional itchiness, Vitiligo does not cause any discomfort, irritation, soreness, or dryness of the skin.
There are two major types of Vitiligo: Segmental and Non-segmental. Segmental, also called unilateral Vitiligo, happens on one part of the body. It often starts at a young age and generally stops spreading after a year. Non-segmental, also called bilateral or generalised Vitiligo, may appear on all body parts, especially areas that are bumped or rubbed frequently. These patches often extend slowly over time if left untreated.
What Causes Vitiligo?
Vitiligo can start at any age, but usually manifests before age 30. It occurs when pigment-producing cells die or stop producing melanin – the pigment that gives your skin colour. The involved patches of skin become lighter or white. It’s unclear why these pigment cells fail or die. In some cases, Vitiligo is related to an existing or underlying autoimmune condition, genetics or a trigger event, such as stress, severe sunburn or skin trauma, such as contact with a chemical.
Is There a Cure for Vitiligo?
Vitiligo is an incurable, but manageable disease. The goal of medical treatment is to create a uniform skin tone. Treatment options currently available include medication, light therapy, microsurgery and adjunctive therapies, however, no product or therapy that can modify the course of the disease and produce a long-lasting remission.
Vitiligo can cause significant psychological distress. Many people with Vitiligo struggle with self-esteem, confidence and social anxiety, especially if the disease affects areas of the skin that are tough to hide beneath clothes or with make-up.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with anxiety or distress related to Vitiligo, there are support groups around the country that can help. Visit vitiligosocietysa.com for more information.
There are other skin diseases which may present as Vitiligo. To be sure, we recommend checking with your doctor. Medshield members may find the closest doctors to them within the Medshield network at www.medshield.co.za.