Vitiligo (vit-ih-LIE-go) is a disease that causes the loss of skin color in blotches. The extent and rate of color loss from vitiligo is unpredictable. It can affect the skin on any part of your body. It may also affect hair, the inside of the mouth and even the eyes.
Normally, the color of hair, skin and eyes is determined by melanin. Vitiligo occurs when the cells that produce melanin die or stop functioning.
Vitiligo affects people of all skin types, but it may be more noticeable in people with darker skin. The condition is not life-threatening or contagious. It can be stressful or make you feel bad about yourself. Treatment for vitiligo may improve the appearance of the affected skin but does not cure the disease.
Vitiligo occurs when melanin-forming cells (melanocytes) die or stop producing melanin — the pigment that gives your skin, hair and eyes color. The involved patches of skin become lighter or white. Doctors don’t know why the cells fail or die. It may be related to:
- A disorder in which your immune system attacks and destroys the melanocytes in the skin
- Family history (heredity)
- A trigger event, such as sunburn, stress or exposure to industrial chemicals
The main sign of vitiligo is color (pigment) loss that produces light or white patches on your skin. Usually, the discoloration first shows on sun-exposed areas, such as the hands, feet, arms, face and lips.
Vitiligo signs include:
- Skin discoloration
- Premature whitening or graying of the hair on your scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows or beard (usually before age 35)
- Loss of color in the tissues that line the inside of your mouth and nose (mucous membranes)
- Loss of or change in color of the inner layer of the eyeball (retina)
- Discolored patches around the armpits, navel, genitals and rectum
- Vitiligo can start at any age, but most often appears before age 20.
Depending on the type of vitiligo you have, the discolored patches may cover:
- Many parts of your body. With this most common type, called generalized vitiligo, the discolored patches often progress similarly on corresponding body parts (symmetrically).
- Only one side or part of your body. This type, called segmental vitiligo, tends to occur at a younger age, progress for a year or two, then stop.
- One or only a few areas of your body. This type is called localized (focal) vitiligo.
It’s difficult to predict how your disease will progress. Sometimes the patches stop forming without treatment. In most cases, pigment loss spreads and eventually involves most of your skin. Rarely, the skin gets its color back.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if areas of your skin, hair or eyes lose coloring. Vitiligo has no cure. But treatment may help to stop or slow the discoloring process and return some color to your skin.