Vitiligo is a common disease that results in depigmented skin. Here are some key facts:
It is fairly common and may affect up to 1% of people. That means that we all likely know (or have at least met) somebody who has it.
It can develop at any age; the average age of onset is about 20 years and it’s quite rare to develop it after the age of 30
There is evidence to suggest that it is an autoimmune disease, and the immune system is damaging a specific type of skin cells (melanocytes) that produce the pigment in skin (the melanin)
Vitiligo shows a familial trait in about 18% of cases, so you may be more likely to be affected if it runs in your family. However, most cases will not have a familial link.
There’s also a link, in some cases, to other autoimmune conditions, such as underactive or overactive thyroid disease
Vitiligo occurs in all races, but is more prominent in those with darker skin
Is vitiligo harmful?
Vitiligo itself is not harmful
But you need to take extra precaution to protect your skin from sun damage, as the pale areas are more susceptible to sunburn and skin cancer. Use high-factor sunscreen on uncovered skin, with protection against both ultraviolet A and B
There’s risk of Vit D deficiency if you are protecting all skin from the sun, so it is worth taking a Vitamin D supplement
Also make sure that you have blood tests to check for any other autoimmune conditions, ask your GP to check your thyroid function, and thyroid autoantibodies once a year. Your GP may advise other blood tests such as B12, and other autoantibodies if you have symptoms that suggest other autoimmune diseases.
There is no cure and treatments are mostly unsatisfactory
Learning to ‘love the skin you’re in’ and embrace your vitiligo is the best thing that you can do, but I understand that this is not always easy and can take time, but small steps towards talking about it and revealing to those close to you is a great start. I like to say to children ‘think about how much people spend on tattoos to decorate their bodies, and you have been given natural decorations for free’, but of course this advice isn’t helpful for everyone.
Camouflage is a safe, simple option, and there is a charity called Changing Faces
GPs and dermatologists can discuss other treatments with you such as steroid creams, therapy using UV light (I know, doesn’t seem to make sense), or creams and medicines that suppress your immune system. Unfortunately these can all have side effects and haven’t been shown to be greatly successful for most people, but scientist will keep looking for new treatments.
Living with Vitiligo
I’m not saying it’s easy. The first thing people see is our akin, and vitiligo often affects the parts that we don’t cover, such as hands and faces, so it can be difficult to accept and live with the condition