Vitiligo facts*

Vitiligo facts medically edited by Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

  • Vitiligo is a disease in which the pigment cells of the skin, melanocytes, are destroyed in certain areas.
  • Vitiligo results in depigmented, or white, patches of skin in any location on the body.
  • Vitiligo can be focal and localized to one area, or it may affect several different areas on the body.
  • The exact cause of vitiligo is unknown, although most experts believe that it is an autoimmune condition in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys certain cells within the body.
  • Most people who have vitiligo will develop the condition prior to age 40; about half develop it before age 20.
  • Vitiligo tends to run in families.
  • Vitiligo is sometimes associated with other medical conditions, including thyroid dysfunction.
  • Vitiligo is not painful and does not have significant health consequences; however, it can have emotional and psychological consequences.
  • Some medical treatments can reduce the severity of the condition, but it can be difficult to cure.

What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo (vit-ill-EYE-go) is a disorder in which white patches of skin appear on different parts of the body. This happens because the cells that make pigment (color) in the skin are destroyed. These cells are called melanocytes (ma-LAN-o-sites). Vitiligo can also affect the mucous membranes (such as the tissue inside the mouth and nose) and the eye.

What causes vitiligo?

The cause is not known. Vitiligo may be an autoimmune disease. These diseases happen when your immune system mistakenly attacks some part of your own body. In vitiligo, the immune system may destroy the melanocytes in the skin. It is also possible that one or more genes may make a person more likely to get the disorder.

Some researchers think that the melanocytes destroy themselves. Others think that a single event such as sunburn or emotional distress can cause vitiligo. But these events have not been proven to cause vitiligo.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/1/2014

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Vitiligo - Effective Treatments Question: What kinds of treatments have been effective for your vitiligo?
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Vitiligo: A Common Cause of Loss of Skin Pigment

Melanin is the pigment that gives the skin its characteristic color. Vitiligo is caused by a loss of pigment in the skin, due to destruction of pigment-forming cells known as melanocytes. Although vitiligo affects all races equally, it is more noticeable in dark-skinned people. Vitiligo can cause cosmetic problems.