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What is Vitiligo by Elizabeth Knight

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Vitiligo is a disease where a person’s skin loses its melanin.  Melanin is a pigment that controls and makes up a person’s skin color, hair color, and eye color.  Melanin also helps protect the skin from ultraviolet rays.  This disease is brought upon by the dying of melanocytes, or melanin producing cells, or cells that cannot produce melanin.  Melanin provides the skin with a normal, even skin color, and lacking melanin leads to appearance changes.  Vitiligo changes the appearance of the skin leaving oddly shaped white patches on its surface.  Vitiligo is not contained to one specific area, and generally spreads all over the body and enlarges.    One of the worst side effects of vitiligo is self confidence in appearance, as people can feel embarrassed by the looks of their skin.

Vitiligo can be a “spontaneous” disease, showing up unexpected with few warning signs or symptoms.  The main sign of vitiligo is the pigment loss that leaves the white patches, not known until it has already shown up on the skin.  Other symptoms can consist of whitening of the hair, eye lashes, and eyebrows.   Vitiligo can appear anywhere on the body, however the pigment loss is usually first seen on areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun.

This disease can affect people of all races, sex, and age.  Vitiligo generally first emerges between the ages of ten and thirty.  It is often more noticeable on people with darker skin, as the white patches can be more easily spotted.  Vitiligo is not overly common but it is also not extremely rare.

The cause of vitiligo is rooted in a defect of the melanin pigment and the lack thereof to produce it.  However, the exact cause of vitiligo is unknown.  Doctors and scientists have theories about the causes of this disorder; it is said that it may have something to do with an immune disorder, as well as play a role in heredity.  Although none of these theories have been proven or accepted.

While there is no cure for vitiligo, there are treatment options.  One option is simply adaption.  A person can make life changes and adapt to their new situation.  One of the most important “medicines” is sunscreen and proper sun safety.  Since people with vitiligo lack melanin, they also lack a skin protectant from harmful UV rays.  Most people with vitiligo have very fair white patches and sensitive skin.  Because people with vitiligo lack melanin, sunscreen must be used to replace it and help protect the skin from major damage.  It will also help control the tanning of the normal pigmented skin, and make the difference less noticeable.

Another option of a simple, inexpensive treatment is cover-up.  Make up is a way to hide the skin color differences, especially if located on the face.  Make up helps make vitiligo go more unnoticed, and boots self appearance confidence.

A third treatment option is a medical treatment that involves the restoration of normal skin color.  There are exposure treatments to light that include spot treatment and full body treatments.  The exposure to light treatments are not always effective and do not always work.  There is another medical option known as skin grafting, where normal pigmented skin in transplanted into the depigmented areas.

A fourth treatment option is a medical treatment of bleaching the normal skin to match.  This can be done with creams and other methods to make an even skin color.  All of the medical options are far more expensive, and not always guaranteed to work.  Treatment is designed to slow the rate of pigment loss and attempt to even the skin color.

Information gathered from the American Vitiligo Research Foundation. http://www.avrf.org/index.htm

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