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Understanding Vitiligo: What It Is and What to Do About It

When most of us think of skin discoloration, we think of hyperpigmentation — a buildup of excess pigments that causes dark spots or “splotches” on the skin. But vitiligo is a relatively common skin condition that does just the opposite: Instead of causing darker patches in the skin, vitiligo causes the skin to lose pigment, leaving areas of skin that are much lighter than the surrounding tissue. Although the appearance may be concerning (especially if you don’t know what’s causing it), vitiligo is generally harmless from a physical standpoint. However, like many other skin conditions, vitiligo can cause emotional distress, especially if the “patches” are large or widespread.

Understanding what causes vitiligo and knowing what your treatment options are can go a long way toward helping you deal with the condition. As a top-ranked dermatologist in the Washington, D.C., area, Dr. Allen Flood offers the most advanced diagnostic and treatment options to help men and women feel more comfortable and more confident about their condition and the symptoms it causes. Here’s what you should know about vitiligo and how it can be treated.

What causes vitiligo?

Your skin contains pigments called melanocytes, special cells that give skin its distinctive color or hue. Normally, these pigments are spread out fairly evenly over the entire body or most of it. In vitiligo, your body’s immune system attacks and destroys these cells, leaving areas of unpigmented (or “white”) skin in its wake. Vitiligo can occur in the presence of autoimmune disorders like lupus, but sometimes, it occurs on its own. Researchers have identified more than 30 gene variations that can make a person more prone to developing vitiligo. Some of these gene variations can be passed from parent to child, meaning if you have a relative with vitiligo, you may be more likely to develop it as well.

What researchers still don’t know is what triggers these gene variations to become “active” — or more specifically, what causes the immune system to begin attacking your body’s melanocytes. Some research points to external stresses, like exposure to chemicals or UV radiation. It might be that the melanocytes of people with vitiligo are more sensitive to stress, and therefore weaker and more likely to be negatively affected by immune system cells. So far, researchers believe a combination of genetics and external factors play a role in triggering the abnormal immune response that results in attacks on the melanocytes.

Although vitiligo is perhaps more noticeable in people with darker skin tones, the condition can affect anyone. Many people experience the first signs in their 20s. Most symptoms show up on skin that’s exposed to the sun’s UV rays, like the skin on the face or arms, but any area can be affected. The way vitiligo “spreads” can also vary from one person to another; in some people, the patches will remain more or less in the area where they first appeared, or they may spread slowly, while in others, the symptoms can spread very rapidly over a large area.

Treating vitiligo

There’s no cure for vitiligo, but some treatments may help slow the progression of symptoms or “camouflage” white patches so your skin appears more “normal.” Dr. Flood will begin your treatment with a thorough health evaluation, including a health history to identify any possible genetic factors. He’ll also ask about past illnesses and stressful events that might have precipitated or exacerbated your symptoms, and he may take a skin biopsy or a blood sample for additional evaluation.

Once vitiligo is diagnosed, the treatment Dr. Flood recommends will be based specifically on your needs and your goals. Treatment options are focused on restoring color to your skin. Some of the most common options include:

Your treatment will be customized for you so you can feel confident about your results.

Learn how to manage your vitiligo

Even though vitiligo itself isn't threatening to your physical health, it can still have emotional consequences. Understanding your treatment options is the first step toward managing the condition and taking control of your well-being. To learn more about the vitiligo treatments Dr. Flood offers, book an appointment online today.

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