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young woman with vitiligo The “RMHP Diagnosis Series” profiles a variety of health conditions that are not well-known, but still create life-altering experiences for those who live with them. Have a suggestion of a condition for us to profile? Email us at

What is vitiligo

Vitiligo is a condition that causes depigmentation of the skin. This means it causes white patches of all shapes and sizes to appear on hands, feet, arms, face and lips, to name a few. Often present in areas exposed to the sun, Vitiligo occurs when skin pigment cells die or are unable to function. The cause is unknown, although research suggests it may stem from autoimmune reactions, stress or a virus.

Who is affected?

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases , 1-2 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with vitiligo, and about 0.5-1% of the world’s population has Vitiligo. The average onset is in the mid-twenties, but it can appear at any age and most people are diagnosed before their 40th birthday. Vitiligo affects all races and sexes.

People with certain autoimmune diseases are more likely to get Vitiligo than people who don’t have any autoimmune diseases, though scientists are not sure why. Interestingly enough, most people with vitiligo have no other autoimmune diseases. Vitiligo may also run in families. Children whose parents have the disorder are more likely to develop the condition, although it’s possible they won’t.

Diagnosing vitiligo

Consult with your doctor if you see any white patches of skin on your body. The doctor may ask:

  • Do you have family members with vitiligo?
  • Do you or family members have any autoimmune diseases?
  • Did you have a rash, sunburn, or other skin problem before the white patches appeared?
  • Did you have some type of stress or physical illness?
  • Are you sensitive to the sun?

There is no way to tell if vitiligo will spread. For some people, the white patches do not spread. But often the white patches will spread to other areas of the body. For some people, vitiligo spreads slowly, over many years. For other people, spreading occurs quickly.

Treatment for vitiligo

Current treatment options for vitiligo include medical, surgical and other treatments, most aimed at restoring color to the white patches of skin. Treatment may include:

  • Steroidal/non-steroidal topical cream
  • Oral medications
  • Ultraviolet treatment
  • Skin graphs
  • Skin-colored tattoos
  • Cosmetics
Treatment may or may not help reduce the number of white patches, or how widespread the patches are. Some treatments are not right for everyone, and many can have unwanted side effects. Discuss options with your doctor in order to find a solution that’s right for you.

Coping With vitiligo

Most people with Vitiligo feel completely healthy, but may become distressed by the prospect of losing color on their skin or hair. There are many ways to cope with life when you have been diagnosed with Vitiligo:

  • Find a doctor who you connect with well, and who is able to provide emotional support as well as medical support while treating Vitiligo
  • Learn about the disorder and treatment options
  • Talk with others who have been diagnosed and learn what tools and resources they use to cope and manage their case
  • Know that you are not alone and there are many support systems out there to help you treat, manage and cope