Vitiligo is a skin condition, in which white patches develop on your skin. The patches are due to loss of colour (pigment) from areas of your skin. There are usually no other symptoms, but the appearance of the skin can cause distress and embarrassment.
The patches follow from a loss of ‘melanocytes’ – the skin cells that normally produce a tan. The cells are either destroyed or damaged and it is currently unknown why this happens in some individuals and not others. Some researchers believe that they may be destroyed by the immune system or self-destruct for reasons not yet known.
Around 1% of the UK’s population suffer from vitiligo, affecting both men and women equally.
Although vitiligo can develop at any age, most see the condition start before the age of 20. Although more visible on darker skin, no single ethnic or racial group is more prone to vitiligo.
Many will see vitiligo appear on the face, neck, arms and hands, but it can appear on any area of the skin. The course and severity of vitiligo varies from person to person. Sometimes a number of patches develop quite quickly and then remain static for months or years without change. However, it is quite common for the white patches gradually to become bigger and for more patches to appear on other parts of the body. Large areas of skin may eventually be affected. It is very rare for vitiligo to affect the whole body. There is no way of predicting how much skin will eventually be affected when the first patch develops.
Although there is no cure for vitiligo, there are treatments available which can help. Some people may not be concerned about the white patches of skin if they are in areas that are not noticeable to others. Most people use camouflage techniques to cover their vitiligo, but this can be time consuming, and not suitable for some areas of the body. The newest treatment for vitiligo involves a small but clever surgical procedure, where melanocytes are obtained from the patient, then grown in a culture in a lab. Once grown these cells are then applied on the vitiligo patches. This type of surgery is relatively new, but has seen very high success rates of 95%.
What can I do?
- Skin camouflage – Special coloured creams that can be used to cover the white patches of skin. These creams can disguise vitiligo very well, but may not be suitable for some areas of the body, and cannot always match the exact skin colour.
- Creams – A steroid or non-steroidal cream is sometimes prescribed for a limited time when a small patch of vitiligo first develops. It may prevent a smaller patch from getting bigger. Cream can only be used for small patches, and will only sometimes re-pigment the skin. Long term use of steroid creams can also have serious side effects, such as thinning of the skin and stretch marks.
- Surgery – Vitiligo surgery has a 95% success rate. It involves the taking of cells from the top layer of skin which are then grown in a culture medium. These healthy pigmented cells are then placed on the vitiligo affected skin, pigmenting the area.