Introduction 

Vitiligo is a long-term condition that causes pale, white patches to develop on the skin due?to the lack of a chemical called?melanin.

Vitiligo can affect any area of your skin, but most commonly occurs on skin exposed to the sun, such as your face, neck and hands.

The condition varies from person to person. Some people only get a few small, white patches, but others get bigger white patches that join up across large areas of their skin.

There is no way of predicting how much skin will be affected. The white patches are usually permanent.

Read more about the?symptoms of vitiligo.

Why does vitiligo happen?

Vitiligo occurs due to a lack of melanin in the affected areas of skin. Melanin, which is produced by specialised skin cells called melanocytes, gives your skin its colour and protects it from the sun.

It's not clear exactly what causes this lack of melanin, but it has been linked to problems with the immune system (autoimmune conditions) and?nerve endings in the skin.

Certain things can increase your chances of developing vitiligo, such as a family history of the condition or?having another autoimmune problem, like an?overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).

Vitiligo is not caused by an infection and you cannot catch it from contact with someone who has it.

Read more about the causes of vitiligo.

Who is affected?

In the UK, about 1 in 100 people develop vitiligo.

In around half of people affected it starts?before the age of 20, although it can occur at any age. Men and women are equally affected, as are people of different ethnicities.

Diagnosis

Vitiligo can usually be identified by?a GP after a physical examination. You may also be asked questions about your family's medical history and if the problem is affecting your confidence.

In some cases, an ultraviolet lamp may be shone on your skin to examine it in more detail and rule out other skin conditions.

You may also be checked for symptoms of other autoimmune conditions, such as diabetes. Blood tests are sometimes taken to check how well your thyroid gland is functioning.

Read more about diagnosing vitiligo.

How is vitiligo treated?

The white patches caused by vitiligo are usually permanent, although there are treatment options?to improve the appearance of your skin.

If the patches are relatively small, skin camouflage cream may be used to cover them up.

In general, combination treatments, such as phototherapy (treatment with light) and medication, give the best results.

In some cases, treatment may restore pigment (colour) to your patches, but the effect doesn't usually last. Treatment cannot stop the condition from?spreading.

Read more about?treating vitiligo.

Complications

Vitiligo can sometimes cause other problems.

Due to a lack of melanin, your skin will be more vulnerable to the effects of the sun. If it is not protected with a strong sunscreen,?sunburn is likely.

Vitiligo may also lead to a lack of pigmentation in your eyes and a partial loss of hearing (hypoacusis).

Problems with confidence and self-esteem are common in people with vitiligo, particularly if the condition affects areas of frequently exposed skin.

Support groups?can often help by putting you in contact with other people who have vitiligo. Your GP may suggest a group in your area, and charities such as?The Vitiligo Society may be able to help.

Vitiligo: Robert's story

Robert has vitiligo, which causes loss of skin colour. Find out how it affected his confidence, and learn about his treatment.

Media last reviewed: 29/05/2015

Next review due: 29/05/2017

Page last reviewed: 03/10/2014

Next review due: 03/10/2016