For millions of people, vitiligo is a daily and very visible struggle. The irregular white patches that result from vitiligo often affect a patient’s self-esteem, and can result in unwanted attention or teasing. Even though vitiligo impacts 1-2% of the U.S. population, there are still many misconceptions about this disease. If you or a loved one has vitiligo, it’s important to understand what vitiligo is, how it’s treated, and what you can do to help.
What is vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a painless and non-contagious skin condition. It destroys melanocytes, which are cells that make pigment in the skin. This causes the skin to turn lighter and appear white. Typically, half of those impacted by vitiligo develop the condition before age 20. The other half tend to develop it before age 40.
The exact cause of vitiligo is unknown. However, it’s believed to be an auto-immune disease. With an auto-immune disease, the immune system attacks the skin’s melanocytes, and destroys them—resulting in a loss of skin color.
Who is at risk for vitiligo?
Vitiligo affects both men and women equally, as well as all races and age groups. If you have a family history of vitiligo, there is an increased chance you could develop it. Vitiligo is more common in patients who have other inflammatory or auto-immune diseases such as Hashimoto’s, scleroderma, psoriasis, or celiac disease.
What are the signs and symptoms of vitiligo?
The most recognizable sign of vitiligo is a patchy loss of skin color. These patches first develop on parts of the body that are most commonly exposed to the sun. This includes the hands, feet, arms, face, and lips.
Other signs and symptoms of vitiligo may include:
- Premature whitening or graying of hair
- Loss of color inside your nose and mouth
- Loss of or change in color in your retinas
Can vitiligo spread?
The extent in which patches will or will not spread depends on what kind of vitiligo you have. There are two types of vitiligo:
- Segmental (or unilateral) pattern: Depigmented patches that develop on one side of the body. Patches remain localized and do not spread beyond the area of the skin that they initially appeared on.
- Non-segmental (or bilateral) pattern: Depigmented patches that develop on both sides of the body symmetrically. These patches usually progress over time, and spread to other parts of the body. Some patients notice an increase in the speed that their patches spread during periods of emotional distress.
What treatments are available for vitiligo?
While there is no cure available for vitiligo, there are several treatment options available that are effective in subsiding its symptoms. At Arizona Dermatology, we offer two effective treatments: XTRAC Excimer Laser and Phototherapy.
XTRAC Excimer Laser
The EXTRAC Excimer Laser delivers a focused beam of UVB light that exclusively targets the affected patch of skin. The advantage of XTRAC Excimer Laser treatment is that it does not affect the surrounding areas of skin that don’t have vitiligo.
Phototherapy uses UV light to bring pigmentation back to the skin. The therapy utilizes UVB light to stimulate the process of re-pigmentation of vitiligo patches. At Arizona Dermatology, we use UVB light at a specific wavelength that, according to clinical studies, is ideal for treating vitiligo.
In addition to the two treatments we offer at our offices, we find that many people have success covering their white patches with cosmetics or self-tanning products. When doing so, we recommend selecting a waterproof product to increase wear time. Professional brands, such as Dermablend, Microskin, and Zanderm, offer products specifically made to cover vitiligo.
What can you expect from these treatments?
Before partaking in skin treatments of any kind, we always strive for open communication with our patients. This includes discussing what you can expect before, during, and after a vitiligo treatment.
Before your treatment
If you suspect you have vitiligo, the first step is to schedule an appointment to have your condition diagnosed. At this appointment, our friendly staff will ease your concerns and answer any questions you may have. By the end of your appointment, you’ll have a clear plan of action for treating your vitiligo symptoms.
It’s important for you to share as much information as possible about your personal and family medical history at your appointment, so we can get a clear sense of your condition. Some questions we may ask during our initial consultation include:
- Do you or any family members have vitiligo?
- Do you or any family members have an auto-immune disease?
- Are you sensitive to the sun?
- When did your patches first appear?
- Do your patches change over time?
Oftentimes, vitiligo can be diagnosed simply by using a tool called a woods lamp, which is essentially a black light. This tool allows us to see areas of your skin that are de-pigmenting. However, we may also:
- Take a biopsy of your skin: This will allow us to test your skin for an absence of melanocytes, indicating vitiligo, or show that your symptoms may be caused by another condition.
- Draw blood for lab tests: A blood test will allow us to see if you have conditions such as pernicious anemia or hyperthyroidism, which are both associated with vitiligo.
During your treatment
Most patients feel no pain during either the XTRAC Excimer Laser or the Phototherapy treatment and no anesthesia is required. You may feel some heat or minor discomfort, but it will be minimal. The procedure is generally done very quickly, depending on how many areas are being treated. Typically, patients are in and out of the treatment room in under 20 minutes.
After your treatment
After treatment, the amount of time until you begin to see results can depend on the severity of your case and the area of the body that was treated. Treatments are usually done two to three times a week for several weeks. Because treatment may increase sensitivity to the sun, it is important to wear a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 every day and avoid unnecessary sun exposure.
Are there any side effects?
The most common side effect is a sunburn that results from exposure to UVB light. Because of this, it’s important to avoid any medications or ingredients that make you sensitive to UVB rays, starting the day before treatment.
Other potential side effects may include:
- Dryness and itching
- Minimal discomfort
- Increased freckling of the skin
- Increased sensitivity to the sun
Do you have additional questions about vitiligo?
If you have additional questions about vitiligo, or would like to get started with treatment, we’re here to help. Schedule a consultation appointment today.