The Truth about Vitiligo
On June 25th we celebrate World Vitiligo Day to raise awareness about this skin disorder, its causes and treatment.
Vitiligo is a disorder which presents as light patches on the skin. They appear when melanocytes within the skin begin to die off, which means the skin essentially loses its colour. Melanocytes are the cells which produce the skin pigment (colour) called melanin. In vitiligo, there are not enough working melanocytes to give colour. Unfortunately, it is not clear why this occurs.
These patches can remain small or can grow quite large in size. They can affect any part of the body, including the mouth, hair and eyes. And, while it may be more noticeable in people with darker skin, vitiligo can affect people of any age, gender, or ethnic group.
Because the skin disorder is relatively unknown there are many false claims about it. In this article, we dispel rumours and shed more light on the truths about vitiligo.
- Vitiligo can be cured with special creams. This is FALSE. While there are treatments that may improve the appearance of the skin and even slow down the growth of the light patches on the skin, there is no real cure for vitiligo. Some treatment options can include exposure to UVA or UVB light and depigmentation of the skin in severe cases.
- You can catch vitiligo from someone who has the condition when you touch them. This is FALSE. Vitiligo is not contagious at all. In fact, it is important that we show acceptance and understanding of the person suffering from the condition because they may be struggling with it on a psychological level.
- Vitiligo can cause white patches anywhere on your body. Yes, this is TRUE. It can affect different areas including your face, neck, armpits, elbows, hands, knees and even hair and inside the mouth. The patches are usually symmetrical and spread over your entire body.
- Vitiligo can be painful. This is FALSE. Vitiligo is quite painless. However, if the skin disorder spreads across the body and causes patches in more visible areas like the face, it can cause some emotional and psychological scarring which can lead to depression. In this case, it may be a good idea to seek therapy to deal with the stress of the condition.
- You can get vitiligo from eating certain foods. This is FALSE. Actually, the exact cause of vitiligo is unknown, although doctors believe it may be an autoimmune condition where the body’s immunity accidentally attacks and destroys certain cells in the body. Patients suffering from it can eat and drink anything they like unless their doctor has told them otherwise.
- Vitiligo is genetic. Yes, this is TRUE. The skin disorder may very well have a genetic component because it does show signs of running in families. Most people who have vitiligo will get it between the ages of 20 and 40. Vitiligo is sometimes associated with other medical conditions, including thyroid dysfunction.
- The condition responds to light. Yes, TRUE, vitiligo is photosensitive which means the affected areas react to sunlight. The doctor will advise you on how to look after your skin when you are outside.
- Vitiligo sometimes won’t spread. Yes, this is TRUE to a point. It is hard to predict whether the patches will spread and how far they will spread. It can take just weeks, or the patches may remain the same for months or even years.
- Vitiligo starts on your face. Yes, this is mostly TRUE. However, it can also start in your neck, hands and in the creases of your skin.
- The only way you can tell you have vitiligo is when you develop a white patch on your skin. This is FALSE. Other symptoms are:
- Premature whitening or greying of the hair closer to your scalp, as well as lightening of eyelashes, eyebrows or facial hair.
- Loss of colour or a change of colour to the retina (inner layer of the eyeball).
- Loss of colour around the mouth and nose.
If you or a loved one are exhibiting any of the above symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor who can help you come to terms with the skin condition and find ways to treat it.
For more information please contact:
Dr D Motsepe (Dermatologist)
MMed, MBChB, BSc
Bokamoso Private Hospital
Telephone: +267 369 4803
Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.