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Vitiligo is a skin condition where patches of skin become pale or white. It affects 1 to 2 in every 100 people.

Vitiligo — like many skin conditions — can be challenging to live with, mainly because of the way the skin looks. However, people with vitiligo are usually in good health and live normal lives.

What is vitiligo?

There are 2 types of vitiligo.

  • Common vitiligo starts as isolated pale or white spots, with more spots or patches appearing over time.
  • Segmental vitiligo affects only one area of skin, generally across an area no bigger than the palm of an adult’s hand. Segmental vitiligo does not spread, is less common and usually occurs in childhood.

The cause of vitiligo is unclear, though it’s thought to be an autoimmune condition, with the skin losing pigment in the affected area. About 1 in 10 people with vitiligo have someone else in their family with the condition.

Vitiligo is a skin condition where patches of skin become pale or white
Vitiligo is a skin condition where patches of skin become pale or white.

Symptoms of vitiligo

The white areas of skin are usually symmetrical, appearing on both sides of the body, and can either be limited to particular areas, such as the groin or armpits, or spread more generally over the body. White hairs can occur in an area of vitiligo, and head and facial hair might start to grey earlier than normal in affected areas.

There are usually no other problems, and most people with vitiligo have good health. However, some people with the condition also have autoimmune conditions such as Graves’ disease (an overactive thyroid) or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (an underactive thyroid).

Diagnosis of vitiligo

Your doctor will talk to you and examine you. You may have blood tests to check for autoimmune diseases.

Treatment of vitiligo

If it is not associated with symptoms that cause physical discomfort or complications, the condition may be left untreated. Otherwise, there are 3 treatment options for vitiligo:

  1. Camouflage using makeup and dyes to conceal affected areas.
  2. Re-pigmentation using medical treatment, surgical treatment or lasers. Medical treatment consists of using light therapy and corticosteroid creams to help stimulate new pigment cells. Types of surgical treatment include melanocyte transplant from an unaffected area to an affected area, which may be done using skin grafts. Surgery should be considered only if medical treatment fails.
  3. Depigmentation, which involves removing pigment from remaining areas of unaffected skin to create a consistent skin colour.

A dermatologist can help you treat and manage your vitiligo if it bothers you.

Support and more information

Having vitiligo can be emotionally and psychologically challenging. If this is the case for you, then you may wish to speak with your doctor about a possible referral to a psychologist.

You can also receive support and information from the Vitiligo Association of Australia and other support groups for people with vitiligo.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2019

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