Understanding Vitiligo: the skin condition that causes loss of skin color in patches.

Vitiligo. You’ve probably heard of this skin disease. Pop singer Michael Jackson had vitiligo. And Canadian model Winnie Harlow has recently become a vitiligo spokesperson after appearing on America’s Next Top Model.

But what exactly is it?

Vitiligo is a skin condition, characterized by patches of skin losing their pigment. Basically, skin loses its original color and turns light. The lightened patches usually start in areas that are exposed to the sun. In some instances, it also causes skin hair to become light. Additionally, the inside of the mouth and nose can also turn light. People of any race can get vitiligo, though it is usually most notable on darker skin tones.  

What causes vitiligo is for the most part unknown. It is believed to have a genetic susceptibility that gets triggered by environmental factors, which results in the development of an autoimmune disease. Some risk factors include family history of vitiligo or other autoimmune diseases. Some also think that sunburn is the cause, but conclusive evidence linking sunburns to vitiligo has not been found. However, there is slight evidence that eating large quantities of gluten based foods, such as bread, can trigger the disease.

Though people have been stigmatized for having the disease in the past, it is not contagious, and there is absolutely no reason to avoid anyone with the condition.

Even animals can get it. Cats in particular, both domestic and wild, have been known to get vitiligo. Also, certain kinds of dogs are susceptible, such as rottweilers, doberman pinschers and Belgian Tervurens. There are also accounts of an animal’s affected area rapidly returning to its original color.

Only 1% of the world’s population has vitiligo. If you reach 20 years of age without showing any kind of symptoms of vitiligo, the chances are that you will never develop the condition. 50% of people that get vitiligo become symptomatic before this age. The only way of seeing if you have vitiligo is if you can observe patches of the skin that are lighter than others. If you’re unsure if something might be vitiligo, shine an ultraviolet light onto the suspected skin. If it glows blue, that means it’s vitiligo. The first patches usually start to appear on the extremities of the body, such as hands, feet and eyes. They begin small, but grow larger with time.

There are 2 types of vitiligo: segmental and non-segmental. Non-segmental cases of vitiligo show the lightened skin patches on both sides of the body, while segmental mostly involves one side of the body

Only about 10% of cases are segmental. As well as being on only one side of the body, it is usually only found on areas of the body that have nerves that extend directly from the spinal cord.   

Additionally, non-segmental vitiligo has a few different categories. The most common is called generalized, where patches are randomly distributed across the body. Universal vitiligo, which is the the kind that Michael Jackson had, covers most/all of the body. Focal vitiligo is found on one small area of the body. Acrofacial vitiligo only shows up on the fingers and extremities of the face. Mucous vitiligo only affects the mucous membranes.

There is no known cure for vitiligo. Treatment typically involves applying steroids, ultraviolet light and special creams onto affected areas. But in mild cases, most people cover their patches with makeup. Also, a drug called afamelanotide is being developed, which has shown promise in treating vitiligo. The medical world does not know when afamelanotide will be released. Currently, it is still in the clinical testing stage.

Vitiligo has been around since antiquity. The first known recording of the disease comes from an Ancient Egyptian text. Unfortunately, for a long time throughout history, doctors did not realize that vitiligo was different than leprosy, meaning that people thought vitiligo sufferers were contagious. This is where much of the stigma around the condition comes from.