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Vitiligo FAQ: What You Need to Know About This Skin Condition

Were you recently diagnosed with vitiligo? Does someone in your life have spots and you are curious? Read below for answers to the most asked questions.

What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a condition that results in white spots on the skin, where they have lost their pigment. It is progressive, meaning as the person ages, they will likely continue to lose more pigment.

Is vitiligo contagious?

Vitiligo is not contagious. You cannot catch it from touching or being near someone else with vitiligo. Vitiligo is a skin condition, but not an infectious or transmissible condition.

What causes vitiligo?

Vitiligo is an auto-immune disorder. Our immune systems are overactive at the skin. The immune system mistakenly attacks the skin, destroying melanocytes, or pigment-producing cells. Our skin can then no longer produce melanin in these areas, resulting in visible white spots, completely devoid of pigment.

Spots are typically splotchy, rather than perfectly round. Vitiligo also tends to be symmetrical across the body, meaning if you have vitiligo on your right hand, you will likely also have it on your left hand, though the spots won’t look identical.

Is vitiligo dangerous or life-threatening?

Typically, no. Individuals with vitiligo should get their thyroid checked regularly, since it is sometimes associated with thyroid problems, but that is the main risk factor for actual illness. Otherwise, vitiligo is considered primarily a “cosmetic condition.”

Many with vitiligo are more diligent about wearing sunscreen and covering up, since much of their skin lacks natural protection from the sun. On the other hand, some research supports that vitiligo might lower your risk for skin and some other cancers, since the immune system is already so present and over-active at the melanocytes, or skin.

How quickly do the spots expand or “spread?”

This depends on the individual. For some people, vitiligo spreads quickly, and for others, it spreads more slowly. I would place my vitiligo on the slower end of the spectrum. I have distinct spots, and discover new ones every year, but I would estimate that vitiligo covers only about 20% of my body. And this is after having vitiligo for 20-some years. Some individuals go from 0% to 100% within a few years. It really varies quite a bit from one immune system and body to another.

Are there treatments? Is there a cure for vitiligo?

There is no cure for vitiligo to get complete repigmentation, but there are treatment options if the individual desires to go down the route. Treatments include steroid creams and UV light treatments, among others. Some people choose make-up to cover their spots, and others choose to not cover their spots at all.

As a child, I did both steroid creams and light treatment, and I got some repigmentation, but now I am in the latter group, where my “treatment” is acceptance of my vitiligo. Oddly enough, years after stopping treatments, I still got some random repigmentation, while other parts of my skin lost pigment. Immune systems and bodies can be surprising.

What are the best vitiligo resources out there?

Two of my favorite resources are:

Blog and Online Community: Living Dappled

Book: “Bodies Are Cool” by Tyler Feder

There are also several foundations and charities out there for vitiligo, but for me, their focus on finding a cure does not align with my acceptance of my skin and spots. For others, these communities and their research may be helpful.

Getty image by Andre Onegin.

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