What Is Vitiligo?
Vitiligo (vit-ill-EYE-go) is a pigmentation disorder in which melanocytes (the
cells that make pigment) in the skin, the mucous membranes (tissues that line
the inside of the mouth and nose and genital and rectal areas), and the retina
(inner layer of the eyeball) are destroyed. As a result, white patches of skin
appear on different parts of the body. The hair that grows in areas affected by
vitiligo usually turns white.
The cause of vitiligo is not known, but doctors and researchers have several
different theories. One theory is that people develop antibodies that destroy
the melanocytes in their own bodies. Another theory is that melanocytes destroy
themselves. Finally, some people have reported that a single event such as
sunburn or emotional distress triggered vitiligo; however, these events have not
been scientifically proven to cause vitiligo.
Who Is Affected by Vitiligo?
About 1 to 2 percent of the world's population, or 40 to 50 million people, have
vitiligo. In the United States, 2 to 5 million people have the disorder.
Ninety-five percent of people who have vitiligo develop it before their 40th
birthday. The disorder affects all races and both sexes equally.
Antibodies--protective proteins produced by the body's immune
system to fight infectious agents (such as bacteria or viruses) or other
"foreign" substances. Occasionally, antibodies develop that can attack a
part of the body and cause an "autoimmune" disease. These antibodies are
Pigment--a coloring matter in the cells and tissues of the body.
Pigmentation--coloring of the skin, hair, mucous membranes, and
retina of the eye.
Depigmentation--loss of color in the skin, hair, mucous
membranes, or retina of the eye.
Melanin--a yellow, brown, or black pigment that determines skin
color. Melanin also acts as a sunscreen and protects the skin from
Melanocytes--special skin cells that produce melanin.
Ultraviolet light A (UVA)--one type of radiation that is part of
sunlight and reaches the earth's surface. Exposure to UVA can cause the
skin to tan. Ultraviolet light is also used in a treatment called
phototherapy for certain skin conditions, including vitiligo.
Vitiligo seems to be more common in people with
certain autoimmune diseases (diseases in which a person's immune system reacts
against the body's own organs or tissues). These autoimmune diseases include
hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), adrenocortical insufficiency (the
adrenal gland does not produce enough of the hormone called corticosteroid),
alopecia areata (patches of baldness), and pernicious anemia (a low level of red
blood cells caused by failure of the body to absorb vitamin B-12). Scientists do
not know the reason for the association between vitiligo and these autoimmune
diseases. However, most people with vitiligo have no other autoimmune disease.
Vitiligo may also be hereditary, that is, it can run in families. Children whose
parents have the disorder are more likely to develop vitiligo. However, most
children will not get vitiligo even if a parent has it, and most people with
vitiligo do not have a family history of the disorder.
What Are the Symptoms of Vitiligo?
People who develop vitiligo usually first notice white patches (depigmentation)
on their skin. These patches are more common in sun-exposed areas, including the
hands, feet, arms, face, and lips. Other common areas for white patches to
appear are the armpits and groin and around the mouth, eyes, nostrils, navel,
Vitiligo generally appears in one of three patterns. In one pattern (focal
pattern), the depigmentation is limited to one or only a few areas. Some people
develop depigmented patches on only one side of their bodies (segmental
pattern). But for most people who have vitiligo, depigmentation occurs on
different parts of the body (generalized pattern). In addition to white patches
on the skin, people with vitiligo may have premature graying of the scalp hair,
eyelashes, eyebrows, and beard. People with dark skin may notice a loss of color
inside their mouths.
Will the Depigmented Patches Spread?
There is no way to predict if vitiligo will spread. For some people, the
depigmented patches do not spread. The disorder is usually progressive, however,
and over time the white patches will spread to other areas of the body. For some
people, vitiligo spreads slowly, over many years. For other people, spreading
occurs rapidly. Some people have reported additional depigmentation following
periods of physical or emotional stress.
How Is Vitiligo Diagnosed?
If a doctor suspects that a person has vitiligo, he or she usually begins by
asking the person about his or her medical history. Important factors in a
person's medical history are a family history of vitiligo; a rash, sunburn, or
other skin trauma at the site of vitiligo 2 to 3 months before depigmentation
started; stress or physical illness; and premature (before age 35) graying of
the hair. In addition, the doctor will need to know whether the patient or
anyone in the patient's family has had any autoimmune diseases and whether the
patient is very sensitive to the sun. The doctor will then examine the patient
to rule out other medical problems. The doctor may take a small sample (biopsy)
of the affected skin. He or she may also take a blood sample to check the
blood-cell count and thyroid function. For some patients, the doctor may
recommend an eye examination to check for uveitis (inflammation of part of the
eye). A blood test to look for the presence of antinuclear antibodies (a type of
autoantibody) may also be done. This test helps determine if the patient has
another autoimmune disease.
How Can People Cope With the Emotional and
Psychological Aspects of Vitiligo?
The change in appearance caused by vitiligo can affect a person's emotional and
psychological well-being and may create difficulty in getting or keeping a job.
People with this disorder can experience emotional stress, particularly if
vitiligo develops on visible areas of the body, such as the face, hands, arms,
feet, or on the genitals. Adolescents, who are often particularly concerned
about their appearance, can be devastated by widespread vitiligo. Some people
who have vitiligo feel embarrassed, ashamed, depressed, or worried about how
others will react.
Several strategies can help a person cope with vitiligo. First, it is important
to find a doctor who is knowledgeable about vitiligo and takes the disorder
seriously. The doctor should also be a good listener and be able to provide
emotional support. Patients need to let their doctors know if they are feeling
depressed because doctors and other mental health professionals can help people
deal with depression. Patients should also learn as much as possible about the
disorder and treatment choices so that they can participate in making important
decisions about medical care.
Talking with other people who have vitiligo may also help a person cope. The
National Vitiligo Foundation can provide information about vitiligo and refer
people to local chapters that have support groups of patients, families, and
physicians. Family and friends are another source of support.
Some people with vitiligo have found that cosmetics that cover the white patches
improve their appearance and help them feel better about themselves. A person
may need to experiment with several brands of concealing cosmetics before
finding the product that works best.
What Treatment Options Are Available?
The goal of treating vitiligo is to restore the function of the skin and to
improve the patient's appearance. Therapy for vitiligo takes a long time--it
usually must be continued for 6 to 18 months. The choice of therapy depends on
the number of white patches and how widespread they are and on the patient's
preference for treatment. Each patient responds differently to therapy, and a
particular treatment may not work for everyone. Current treatment options for
vitiligo include medical, surgical, and adjunctive therapies (therapies that can
be used along with surgical or medical treatments).
Options for Vitiligo
- Topical steroid therapy
- Topical psoralen photochemotherapy
- Oral psoralen photochemotherapy
- Skin grafts from a person's own
- Skin grafts using blisters
- Micropigmentation (tattooing)
- Autologous melanocyte transplants
- Counseling and support
Topical Steroid Therapy
Steroids may be helpful in repigmenting the skin (returning the color to white
patches), particularly if started early in the disease. Corticosteroids are a
group of drugs similar to the hormones produced by the adrenal glands (such as
cortisone). Doctors often prescribe a mild topical corticosteroid cream for
children under 10 years old and a stronger one for adults. Patients must apply
the cream to the white patches on their skin for at least 3 months before seeing
any results. It is the simplest and safest treatment but not as effective as
psoralen photochemotherapy (see below). The doctor will closely monitor the
patient for side effects such as skin shrinkage and skin striae (streaks or
lines on the skin).
Psoralen photochemotherapy (psoralen and ultraviolet A therapy, or PUVA) is
probably the most beneficial treatment for vitiligo available in the United
States. The goal of PUVA therapy is to repigment the white patches. However, it
is time-consuming and care must be taken to avoid side effects, which can
sometimes be severe. Psoralens are drugs that contain chemicals that react with
ultraviolet light to cause darkening of the skin. The treatment involves taking
psoralen by mouth (orally) or applying it to the skin (topically). This is
followed by carefully timed exposure to ultraviolet A (UVA) light from a special
lamp or to sunlight. Patients usually receive treatments in their doctors'
offices so they can be carefully watched for any side effects. Patients must
minimize exposure to sunlight at other times.
Topical Psoralen Photochemotherapy
Topical psoralen photochemotherapy often is used for people with a small number
of depigmented patches (affecting less than 20 percent of the body). It is also
used for children 2 years old and older who have localized patches of vitiligo.
Treatments are done in a doctor's office under artificial UVA light once or
twice a week. The doctor or nurse applies a thin coat of psoralen to the
patient's depigmented patches about 30 minutes before UVA light exposure. The
patient is then exposed to an amount of UVA light that turns the affected area
pink. The doctor usually increases the dose of UVA light slowly over many weeks.
Eventually, the pink areas fade and a more normal skin color appears. After each
treatment, the patient washes his or her skin with soap and water and applies a
sunscreen before leaving the doctor's office.
There are two major potential side effects of topical PUVA therapy: (1) severe
sunburn and blistering and (2) too much repigmentation or darkening of the
treated patches or the normal skin surrounding the vitiligo (hyperpigmentation).
Patients can minimize their chances of sunburn if they avoid exposure to direct
sunlight after each treatment. Hyperpigmentation is usually a temporary problem
and eventually disappears when treatment is stopped.
Oral Psoralen Photochemotherapy
Oral PUVA therapy is used for people with more extensive vitiligo (affecting
greater than 20 percent of the body) or for people who do not respond to topical
PUVA therapy. Oral psoralen is not recommended for children under 10 years of
age because of an increased risk of damage to the eyes, such as cataracts. For
oral PUVA therapy, the patient takes a prescribed dose of psoralen by mouth
about 2 hours before exposure to artificial UVA light or sunlight. The doctor
adjusts the dose of light until the skin areas being treated become pink.
Treatments are usually given two or three times a week, but never 2 days in a
For patients who cannot go to a PUVA facility, the doctor may prescribe psoralen
to be used with natural sunlight exposure. The doctor will give the patient
careful instructions on carrying out treatment at home and monitor the patient
during scheduled checkups.
Known side effects of oral psoralen include sunburn, nausea and vomiting,
itching, abnormal hair growth, and hyperpigmentation. Oral psoralen
photochemotherapy may increase the risk of skin cancer. To avoid sunburn and
reduce the risk of skin cancer, patients undergoing oral PUVA therapy should
apply sunscreen and avoid direct sunlight for 24 to 48 hours after each
treatment. Patients should also wear protective UVA sunglasses for 18 to 24
hours after each treatment to avoid eye damage, particularly cataracts.
Depigmentation involves fading the rest of the skin on the body to match the
already white areas. For people who have vitiligo on more than 50 percent of
their bodies, depigmentation may be the best treatment option. Patients apply
the drug monobenzylether of hydroquinone (monobenzone or Benoquin*) twice a day
to pigmented areas until they match the already depigmented areas. Patients must
avoid direct skin-to-skin contact with other people for at least 2 hours after
applying the drug.
The major side effect of depigmentation therapy is inflammation (redness and
swelling) of the skin. Patients may experience itching, dry skin, or abnormal
darkening of the membrane that covers the white of the eye. Depigmentation is
permanent and cannot be reversed. In addition, a person who undergoes
depigmentation will always be abnormally sensitive to sunlight.
* Brand names included in this booklet are provided as examples only, and their
inclusion does not mean that these products are endorsed by the National
Institutes of Health or any other Government agency. Also, if a particular brand
name is not mentioned, this does not mean or imply that the product is
All surgical therapies must be viewed as experimental because their
effectiveness and side effects remain to be fully defined.
Autologous Skin Grafts
In an autologous (use of a person's own tissues) skin graft, the doctor removes
skin from one area of a patient's body and attaches it to another area. This
type of skin grafting is sometimes used for patients with small patches of
vitiligo. The doctor removes sections of the normal, pigmented skin (donor
sites) and places them on the depigmented areas (recipient sites). There are
several possible complications of autologous skin grafting. Infections may occur
at the donor or recipient sites. The recipient and donor sites may develop
scarring, a cobblestone appearance, or a spotty pigmentation, or may fail to
repigment at all. Treatment with grafting takes time and is costly, and most
people find it neither acceptable nor affordable.
Skin Grafts Using Blisters
In this procedure, the doctor creates blisters on the patient's pigmented skin
by using heat, suction, or freezing cold. The tops of the blisters are then cut
out and transplanted to a depigmented skin area. The risks of blister grafting
include the development of a cobblestone appearance, scarring, and lack of
repigmentation. However, there is less risk of scarring with this procedure than
with other types of grafting.
Tattooing implants pigment into the skin with a special surgical instrument.
This procedure works best for the lip area, particularly in people with dark
skin; however, it is difficult for the doctor to match perfectly the color of
the skin of the surrounding area. Tattooing tends to fade over time. In
addition, tattooing of the lips may lead to episodes of blister outbreaks caused
by the herpes simplex virus.
Autologous Melanocyte Transplants
In this procedure, the doctor takes a sample of the patient's normal pigmented
skin and places it in a laboratory dish containing a special cell culture
solution to grow melanocytes. When the melanocytes in the culture solution have
multiplied, the doctor transplants them to the patient's depigmented skin
patches. This procedure is currently experimental and is impractical for the
routine care of people with vitiligo.
People who have vitiligo, particularly those with fair skin, should use a
sunscreen that provides protection from both the UVA and UVB forms of
ultraviolet light. Sunscreen helps protect the skin from sunburn and long-term
damage. Sunscreen also minimizes tanning, which makes the contrast between
normal and depigmented skin less noticeable.
Some patients with vitiligo cover depigmented patches with stains, makeup, or
self-tanning lotions. These cosmetic products can be particularly effective for
people whose vitiligo is limited to exposed areas of the body. Dermablend, Lydia
O'Leary, Clinique, Fashion Flair, Vitadye, and Chromelin offer makeup or dyes
that patients may find helpful for covering up depigmented patches.
Counseling and Support Groups
Many people with vitiligo find it helpful to get counseling from a mental health
professional. People often find they can talk to their counselor about issues
that are difficult to discuss with anyone else. A mental health counselor can
also offer patients support and help in coping with vitiligo. In addition, it
may be helpful to attend a vitiligo support group.
What Research Is Being Done on Vitiligo?
For more than a decade, research on how melanocytes play a role in vitiligo has
greatly increased. This includes research on autologous melanocyte transplants.
At the University of Colorado, NIAMS supports a large collaborative project
involving families with vitiligo in the United States and the United Kingdom. To
date, over 2,400 patients are involved. It is hoped that genetic analysis of
these families will uncover the location--and possibly the specific gene or
genes--conferring susceptibility to the disease. Doctors and researchers
continue to look for the causes of and new treatments for vitiligo.
Where Can People Get More Information About Vitiligo?
American Academy of Dermatology
P.O. Box 4014
Schaumburg, IL 60168-4014
Phone: 847-330-0230 or
888-462-DERM (3376) (free of charge)
National Institutes of Health
Nutritional and Herbal Therapy for
are a few herbs that have been shown to help slow the process of
depigmentation and may actually help with repigmentation: Ginkgo biloba,
khella and picrorhiza
- Standardized Ginkgo biloba (120 mg a
- Khella extract (120–160 mg)
- Picrorhiza (between 400 and 1,500 mg)
Folic acid (1–10 mg per day)
Vitamin C (1,000 mg a day)
Vitamin B12 (2,000 mcg a day)