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What is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a skin condition in which the brown color (or pigment) of the skin lightens. The lighter areas typically have irregular, dark, and well-defined edges that appear on the face, lips, hands, feet, elbows, knees, and genitals. But vitiligo also can occur inside and around the mouth, inside the nose, in the armpits, and on the eyelids.  Although the skin changes color with vitiligo, its texture feels normal.

Vitiligo can occur gradually or suddenly. It can affect small or large areas of skin. In many people, vitiligo spreads over time. If you have vitiligo, there is no way to tell how much of your skin will lose its color.

What Causes Vitiligo?

Although the cause of vitiligo is unknown, researchers suggest it occurs when immune cells destroy cells that create color (or melanin) in the skin.

Who Gets Vitiligo?

Approximately 1 in 100 Americans have vitiligo. Anyone can get vitiligo at any age, but it appears most often in people age 40 years and younger. People who have family members with the condition and those with other autoimmune diseases such as thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis are more likely to develop vitiligo. 

How to Tell if you Have Vitiligo

If you suspect you have vitiligo, you should visit your dermatologist, where he or she will:

  • Review your medical history and family history
  • Perform a physical exam and use an ultraviolet light to help identify vitiligo 
  • Perform an eye exam
  • Take a skin sample for biopsy if necessary
  • Take a blood sample for testing

What is the Treatment for Vitiligo?

Although there is no cure for vitiligo, certain treatments can help slow or stop the condition from progressing. In some cases, skin color returns without treatment; but many people with vitiligo benefit from treatment to help even out the color of the skin by restoring or removing pigment.

The type of treatment you receive will depend on the type and severity of your vitiligo as well as your age, overall health, and treatment preferences.

Vitiligo treatment includes:

  • Ointments and creams, including topical corticosteroids, calcipotriol, and tacrolimus that can be used alone or in combination to add pigment to small areas of skin
  • Therapy with narrow-band ultraviolet B (NB-UVB) light to help replace the color of (or repigment) the skin. To be effective, NB-UVB must be administered in 2 to 3 weekly sessions for several months
  • Standard phototherapy, which can be used to treat large areas of vitiligo
  • Excimer laser treatment with NB-UVB light therapy for best results on the face and small areas on the body
  • Combination therapy with topical or oral psoralen and ultraviolet A (PUVA) light to repigment skin on the face, upper arms, upper legs, and trunk
  • Removing color (depigmentation) with the chemical monobenzone to match darker and lighter areas. Often used to treat large areas of vitiligo, depigmentation is permanent
  • Surgery, including skin grafts to replace small areas of vitiligo
  • Tattoos to add color to small areas of skin
  • Sunscreen to prevent areas of skin from becoming excessively dark (hyperpigmentation)
  • Cosmetics such as makeup and dye to cover the white patches

Counseling and Support 

Some people with vitiligo feel self conscious about the appearance of their skin. The good news is that we offer counseling and support to help people with vitiligo cope with their condition. 

If you have symptoms of vitiligo, call Summit Health Dermatology today at 908-277-8668

If you would like counseling to help you cope with vitiligo, call Summit Health Behavioral Health and Cognitive Therapy Center today at 908-508-8909.