Vitiligo is a long-term disease that causes depigmentation of polymer melanin either all over or in specific areas of the skin. This occurs when the skin pigment cells (melanocytes) die or are unable to function properly. This process is usually permanent.
Whilst the cause remains largely unknown research has shown that autoimmune, viral and neural factors may trigger the disease. Further studies have shown that genetics and the environment strongly affect the cause of the disease. Variations in genes that are part of the immune system or part of melanocytes have been associated with vitiligo hence an individual may have a greater than average chance of vitiligo if inheriting an autoimmune deficiency from a parent such as hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland).
Vitiligo’s only symptom is patches of pale or discoloured skin which tend to occur in the hands and feet. These patches start small and usually grow and change shape. Lesions (skin damage) usually occur on the face and wrists with further loss of skin colour in proximity to the body’s orifices (mouth, eyes, nose, navel and genitalia).
While the condition is permanent, there are treatments that can improve the appearance of the skin. If the area is relatively small, skin camouflage cream may be used to cover up or better blend the discolouration. For results that are more effective and on larger areas, a combination of treatments such as phototherapy and medication is used.
Vitiligo can sometimes cause other problems. Due to the lack of the melanin complex, the skin is more susceptible to the effects of sunlight, for example, prolonged exposure leads to sunburn. Vitiligo may also lead to a lack of pigmentation in the eyes and a partial loss of hearing. Due to the associated stigmata of vitiligo, problems with confidence and self-esteem are common, particularly if the condition affects areas of frequently exposed skin.
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