Vitiligo: Causes, Myths, and Facts

Vitiligo2Vitiligo (vit-uh-lie-go) also called ‘leucoderma’ is a condition in which there is a development of milky-white patches on the skin. Anyone can get this skin disorder. Millions of people of all races and ethnicities worldwide have Vitiligo. It occurs in 0.5-2% of the general population. Some well-known cases of vitiligo have occurred in celebrities such as Michael Jackson, supermodel Winnie Harlow, and comedian Steve Martin.

So what causes vitiligo? Vitiligo is usually seen on the skin but other areas such as the scalp, lips and genitals can also be affected. Patches of hair can turn white. It develops because color producing cells in our skin called melanocytes, die.

Scientists have not completely understood why these cells die. Multiple factors such as genetics, a weak immune system which attacks its own cells, and increased free radical-induced damage (oxidative stress) may be the cause. Those whose parents have vitiligo and associated autoimmune diseases are more likely to get it as compared to the general population, although in most cases there is no family history of the condition. Certain factors such as skin injury and severe sunburn can cause development of new patches in a predisposed individual as well.

There are several myths associated with the spread of vitiligo but the fact is that vitiligo is not contagious. People also think that it is caused by eating white foods and drinking too much milk which is also false. Certain prescribed medications can stop the spread of new vitiligo spots but is not guaranteed, as new spots may appear but recover as treatment proceeds. Although vitiligo is not life-threatening it is life-changing. Those afflicted with vitiligo and their families face social stigmatisation leading to low self-esteem, anxiety, embarrassment, anger and even serious depression.

The Division of Dermatology at Jamaica Hospital offers several services, including adult and pediatric dermatology, dermatologic and skin cancer surgery, and cosmetic dermatology. For an appointment, please call (718) 206- 6742.