• We are sorry, but NCBI web applications do not support your browser and may not function properly. More information

PubMed Health. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M.; 2013.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.

Vitiligo

Last reviewed: July 11, 2012.

Vitiligo is a skin condition in which there is a loss of brown color (pigment) from areas of skin, resulting in irregular white patches that feel like normal skin.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Vitiligo appears to occur when immune cells destroy the cells that produce brown pigment (melanocytes). This destruction is thought to be due to an autoimmune problem, but the cause is unknown.

Vitiligo may appear at any age. There is an increased rate of the condition in some families. The condition affects about 1 out of every 100 people in the United States.

Vitiligo is associated with three other autoimmune diseases:

Symptoms

Flat areas of normal-feeling skin without any pigment appear suddenly or gradually. These areas have a darker border. The edges are well defined but irregular.

Vitiligo most often affects the face, elbows and knees, hands and feet, and genits. It affects both sides of the body equally.

Vitiligo is more noticeable in darker-skinned people because of the contrast of white patches against dark skin.

No other skin changes occur.

Signs and tests

Your health care provider can usually examine your skin to confirm the diagnosis.

Sometimes, a health care provider may use a Wood's light. This is a handheld ultraviolet light that causes the areas of skin with less pigment to glow bright white.

In some cases, a skin biopsy may be needed to rule out other causes of pigment loss. Your doctor may also perform blood tests to check the levels of thyroid or other hormones, and vitamin B12.

Treatment

Vitiligo is difficult to treat. Early treatment options include the following:

  • Phototherapy, a medical procedure in which your skin is carefully exposed to ultraviolet light. Phototherapy may be given alone, or after you take a drug that makes your skin sensitive to light. A dermatologist performs this treatment.
  • Medicines applied to the skin, such as:
    • Corticosteroid creams or ointments
    • Immunosuppressant creams or ointments, such as pimecrolimus (Elidel) and tacrolimus (Protopic)
    • Topical drugs such as methoxsalen (Oxsoralen)

Skin may be moved (grafted) from normally pigmented areas and placed onto areas where there is pigment loss.

Several cover-up makeups or skin dyes can mask vitiligo. Ask your health care provider for the names of these products.

In extreme cases when most of the body is affected, the remaining skin that still has pigment may be depigmented. This is a permanent change that is used as a last resort.

It is important to remember that skin without pigment is at greater risk for sun damage. Be sure to apply a broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB), high-SPF sunscreen or sunblock and use appropriate safeguards against sun exposure.

Support Groups

Expectations (prognosis)

The course of vitiligo varies and is unpredictable. Some areas may regain normal pigment (coloring), but other new areas of pigment loss may appear. Skin that is repigmented may be slightly lighter or darker than the surrounding skin. Pigment loss may get worse over time.

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if areas of your skin lose their coloring for no reason (for example, there was no injury to the skin).

References

  1. Habif TP. Light-related diseases and disorders of pigmentation. In: Habif TP, ed. Clinical Dermatology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier;2009:chap 19.

Review Date: 7/11/2012.

Reviewed by: Kevin Berman, MD, PhD, Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

What works?

  • Selenium supplementation for Hashimoto's thyroiditis
    Hashimoto's thyroiditis is a common disease in which a form of chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland results in reduced function of the gland. It is an auto‐immune disorder, which means that a person's own immune system attacks the thyroid gland, so that it no longer makes adequate quantities of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism). Common clinical manifestations include feeling cold, depressive mood, dry skin, puffy eyes, constipation, weight gain, slowed heart rate, joint and muscle pain and fatigue. Some but not all people with Hashimoto's thyroiditis have an enlarged gland, also called a goitre. Hashimoto's thyroiditis is more common in women than in men and tends to run in families. Other auto‐immune diseases often occur simultaneously, such as vitiligo, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes type 1. The disease does not always require treatment, but when it does, it is treated with synthetic thyroid hormone replacement (sometimes desiccated thyroid hormone is used, which is not synthetic). Selenium is an essential trace element that is required in small amounts for correct functioning of the immune system and the thyroid gland.
See all (2) ...

Figures

  • Vitiligo.
    Vitiligo, drug induced.
    Vitiligo on the face.
    Vitiligo on the back and arm.

PubMed Health Blog...

read all...

MedlinePlus.gov links to free, reliable, up-to-date health information from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other trusted health organizations.

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...