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Vitiligo – Cure and Cause Unknown By Eric Ammel

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Vitiligo is a condition in which a person loses the color of their skin.  This discoloration can occur around one’s hands, feet, face, eyes, mouth, naval, and genital region.  Often people with vitiligo have hair that turns grey early in spots and those who are darker skinned may even notice discoloration on the inside of their mouth.  Vitiligo does affect people of all races and is different for everyone.  In individuals with darker skin pigmentation, the lack of color is much more noticeable than fairer skinned individuals.  Approximately 1% of the population is affected by this condition which usually occurs in those between 20-40 years of age.

The exact cause and cure are still unknown for vitiligo.  The discoloration is technically a lack of color being produced.  The pigmentation in a person’s skin begins with melanocytes which are located in the bottom/innermost layer (stratum basale) of the epidermis (the layer of skin under the dermis).  These melanocytes produce melanin, which is the pigment primarily responsible for our skin color.  When melanocytes stop producing melanin for whatever reason, the skin in that area of affected melanocytes loses its color and appears pale or white.  If there is hair in the affected area, it too loses color and turns grey or white.  The area/areas affected may first appear as small white dots or patches and oftentimes will spread and appear on multiple areas of one’s body.  For some people, this spreading may occur rapidly and for some, this may be a very slow process.  The exact cause of the melanocytes not producing melanin is unknown.  Some people have reported that a single event triggered the first seen patches.  An event like an extreme sunburn or even serious emotional or physical stress has been known to trigger this condition.  Many doctors believe that it is an autoimmune disease.  An autoimmune disease occurs when a person’s immune system (built to defend and protect our body) for one reason or another, turns on us and begins attacking.  It attacks healthy, functioning cells and we are unsure why.  In this case, those healthy cells are the melanocytes striving to produce melanin.

There currently is no cure for vitiligo.  For some people the color returns without treatment, for others it does not.  Some treatments can help to control vitiligo but everyone responds differently to the assorted treatments.  Treatments vary from topical corticosteroids, which is a steroid cream applied to the affected area, to ultraviolet lights.  Extreme and more costly methods that some have tried include skin grafts and tattooing the affected areas to match the surrounding skin.  If you have further questions about vitiligo you should consult with a local dermatologist that you feel comfortable with.



“What is Vitiligo?” reviewed November 2010



“Vitiligo” By Mayo Clinic staff.  April 21, 2011

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Martini / Nath (2009).  Fundamentals of Anatomy & Physiology (8th edition)

Pearson Benjamin Cummings


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