Navigate Up

Pediatric Center - A-Z Index

#
Q
Z

Print This Page

Vitiligo

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

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

Updated: 7/11/2012

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.


©  UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Supplemental content provided by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions. All rights reserved.

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on UPMC.com is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, UPMC.com is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

For UPMC Mercy Patients: As a Catholic hospital, UPMC Mercy abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as determined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, UPMC Mercy neither endorses nor provides medical practices and/or procedures that contradict the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

© UPMC
Pittsburgh, PA, USA UPMC.com