Goodskin Dermatology

Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment for Vitiligo

Do you need vitiligo treatment?

If you have been diagnosed with this condition — or you suspect you have it — it’s important that you consult a board-certified dermatologist to explore your options.

Vitiligo can be a confusing condition, so we’ll break down the various symptoms, methods of diagnosis, and vitiligo treatments you need to know about.

treatment for vitiligo

Table of Contents

What Is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a common skin condition affecting an estimated 0.5-1.5% of the world’s population. It causes patchy loss of pigmentation on areas of skin all over the body, meaning that some parts are much lighter than others.

Vitiligo can occur anywhere on the body, including the hair and inside the mouth. Vitiligo has even been known to cause lighter patches on the eyes and appear inside people’s ears, affecting their hearing.

When vitiligo first occurs, it is most commonly seen on the face, arms, hands, and feet. It usually starts with a few patches that may stay the same size for several years. If these patches occur in only one or a few places, it is known as localized vitiligo.

If there are many patches of color loss scattered throughout the body, this is called generalized vitiligo.

And when people lose most of their skin color, that’s known as universal vitiligo — though this condition is rare.

Doctors also characterize this condition based on whether it appears on one or both sides of the body. The categories include:

  • Non-segmental vitiligo – Patches usually appear on both sides of the body, such as both hands or both feet. Non-segmental vitiligo usually spreads slowly, and new patches may pop up throughout a person’s life.
  • Segmental vitiligo – Also known as unilateral vitiligo, this is when people experience rapid color loss on only one side of the body. It usually stabilizes, meaning the color loss stops, after about 6 to 12 months.
  • Mixed type vitiligo – This is rarer than the other two, but occurs when someone develops segmental vitiligo and additional color loss beyond the segmental patches.

What Are the Symptoms of Vitiligo?

The symptoms of vitiligo may include:

  • Spots and/or patches of lighter skin
  • Skin turning white
  • Loss of color in areas with mucous membranes (mouth, nose, and even genitals)
  • Higher susceptibility to sunburn
  • Itching
  • Hair on the head, eyelashes, or eyebrows turning white or gray
  • Changes in eye color
  • Hearing loss

Since vitiligo can change the appearance so drastically, many people with the condition feel self-conscious about it and can also experience embarrassment, anger, and even depression.

vitiligo treatments

What Causes Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is not contagious but is an autoimmune disease wherein the immune system attacks melanocytes, the cells that produce pigment, causing them to die or stop making melanin. This is what causes the lighter or white patches of the skin and hair.

At times, vitiligo may also be caused by a traumatic skin event, such as severe sunburn or exposure to a chemical. It may even be the result of emotional distress.

Who Is Most Likely To Get Vitiligo?

Anyone can get vitiligo, although it is more noticeable in people with darker skin.

About half of those who experience vitiligo first get it before the age of 20. Children with vitiligo often have a relative with the condition. 

Is Vitiligo Hereditary?

Vitiligo often runs in families, but having a close relative with the condition doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get it as well.

There are many genes involved in vitiligo, and if you inherit these it may increase the risk of something — such as a bad sunburn, skin injury, or chemical contact — triggering the disease.

What Can Increase the Risk of Getting Vitiligo?

There is a higher risk of getting vitiligo if:

  • You have a family history of the condition.
  • You have non-Hodgkin lymphoma or melanoma.
  • You are being treated with immunotherapy.
  • You or a member of your family has an autoimmune disease, such as:

Is Vitiligo Preventable?

There is no way to prevent vitiligo, but seeking early treatment when you first see signs of the condition may stop it from spreading.

How Is Vitiligo Diagnosed?

A board-certified dermatologist will be able to diagnose vitiligo by examining your skin and reviewing your medical history. They may use a special lamp that makes it easier to see areas of vitiligo.

Since vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder, your doctor may recommend blood tests to see if any areas of your body are being attacked by other autoimmune diseases. They may also do an eye exam to check for inflammation and a skin biopsy to check for missing melanocytes.

Some view vitiligo as a cosmetic condition, but it is a medical condition that can affect other systems of the body. While many people with vitiligo are otherwise healthy, it’s important to be evaluated and seek treatment.

treatments for vitiligo

How Is Vitiligo Treated?

Vitiligo has many treatment options including topical and oral medications, phototherapy, surgery, and more. Your care provider will discuss your case and your treatment goals to help you decide on a recommended course of action, tell you about possible side effects, and more.

Since vitiligo is a progressive disease, once diagnosed you may need to be treated for it throughout your lifetime.

Please note that treatments may vary depending on the condition and individual patient. Always consult with your healthcare provider to see which treatment is recommended.

Medications

Medications to help treat vitiligo may be topical, oral, or injectible, in some cases. These include:

  • Corticosteroids – These help control inflammation, are best for new cases of vitiligo, and shouldn’t be used for extended periods. They can be rubbed into the skin, taken orally, or injected to help restore lost skin color and slow down the spread of new patches.
  • Immune-boosting ointments – These include tacrolimus (Protopic) and pimecrolimus (Elidel). They can be used for longer periods than corticosteroids and may be effective for those with smaller areas of vitiligo, especially on the face and neck.
  • Calcipotriene – This topical medication should be used in conjunction with a corticosteroid to help restore lost pigment and see faster results.
  • JAK inhibitors – These are newer medications prescribed to treat smaller areas of the body. Ruxolitinib (Opzelura) is the only medication of this type currently approved by the FDA to restore lost skin color caused by vitiligo.

Light Therapy

Exposing the skin to UVB rays has been shown to slow or even stop the progression of vitiligo. It may be more effective combined with some of the medications listed above.

You will likely need to visit a dermatologist’s office to receive phototherapy two or three times per week, and it could take a few months to notice changes. The full effects of light therapy may take six months or more.

You may have the option of doing at-home light therapy using portable or handheld devices.

Surgery

When medications and light therapy don’t work, some people may choose to have surgery to help restore their skin’s natural color.

Options for vitiligo surgery include:

  • Skin grafts – This procedure involves transferring small sections of healthy, pigmented skin to places where you’ve lost color. 
  • Blister grafts – For these grafts, blisters are created on top of pigmented skin — usually using suction — and then the tops of the blisters are transplanted to areas with unpigmented skin.
  • Cellular suspension transplants – This involves taking tissue from healthy skin and putting it into a solution, then transferring the cells to affected areas. New areas of repigmented growth should show up within a month.

Surgical treatment can come with risks such as scarring, infection, uneven skin tone, or the triggering of new patches of vitiligo. Your Goodskin Dermatology provider can discuss with you whether surgery is a good option for your vitiligo case.

Depigmentation

This treatment option is rare and is for people who have lost most of their skin’s color and decide to just remove the rest of it. 

Depigmentation involves applying a cream to the remaining colored skin to gradually remove the pigment. This process can take several years.

Tips for Living With Vitiligo

Since skin lightened by vitiligo is extra sensitive to the sun, those with the condition should be vigilant about applying sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and staying in the shade when possible.

Vitiligo patients should also avoid getting tattoos, as this trauma to the skin can cause new patches to appear.

Many otherwise healthy people with vitiligo choose to show off their two-toned skin rather than covering it up. But if you prefer, there are cosmetic application options that can help you even out your skin color.

These include:

  • Make-up
  • Self-tanner; and
  • Skin dyes

Goodskin Dermatology Provides High-Quality, Patient-Based Care for Those Dealing With Vitiligo

If you suspect you may have vitiligo or you’re embarrassed by its effects on your skin, Goodskin Dermatology can help.

We’ve been serving residents of the Greater Portland area for decades, and our mission is to help our patients obtain healthy, vibrant, beautiful skin. We do this by offering a variety of clinical, surgical, and cosmetic dermatology services to address a wide range of conditions.

At Goodskin Dermatology, we understand the effects skin conditions can have on a person’s daily life and well-being. That’s why we work hard to accurately diagnose them and create effective treatment plans that get the desired results.

If you’re ready to seek treatments for vitiligo, contact us today to schedule a consultation.

The content in this blog should not be used in place of direct medical advice/treatment and is solely for informational purposes.