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Vitiligo is an autoimmune skin color disorder. It appears on the skin as completely white patches (depigmentation) surrounded by normal skin. The white areas of skin do not contain the skin color producing cells called melanocytes. The hair found within the depigmented skin is often white also.

Symptoms and appearance

Vitiligo patches can be any size and may have various shapes. The most common sites for vitiligo are face, upper chest, backs of the hands, underarms, groin, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, genitalia, elbows and knees. The vitiligo often affects both sides of the body. The white patches of vitiligo are more sensitive to sun exposure than normal skin and can sunburn easily. Sun protection is very important for areas of vitiligo.

Vitiligo affects all races and both sexes equally. Vitiligo tends to run in families. It occurs in 1-2 percent of the population and is associated with another autoimmune disease 10-15 percent more than in the general population. Therefore, your doctor may want to check for an autoimmune condition called thyroid disease. This is done with a simple blood test.

Vitiligo treatment

Spontaneous repigmentation of the skin (return of color) occurs in less than 25 percent of patients with vitiligo. Many patients do not require treatment.

A high potency topical steroid medication may be used to treat your child’s vitiligo. This treatment may decrease skin inflammation and allow skin color to return.

Phototherapy treatments can be helpful in some individuals. The therapy requires frequent visits to the office (three times per week) for many weeks. A controlled amount of ultraviolet light is shone onto the affected skin which can sometimes cause the skin to repigment. Doing nothing (except sun protection) is an appropriate treatment as well since treatments for vitiligo are not always successful and some patients will get skin color returning regardless of treatment.

When the skin does start to regain its color, the repigmentation usually begins at the base of the hair follicles within the areas of vitiligo. The pigment follows the hair follicle to the surface of the skin giving a “polka dot” appearance of the skin for a while. Skin color then spreads over the white area of skin.