Vitiligo, or leukoderma, is a medical condition that affects the pigmentation in the skin and mucous membranes. Cells that create skin color are destroyed, causing white patches to appear. This disease can affect any part of the body, including inside the mouth, nostrils or eyeballs. Hair can even be caused to turn white by this condition.
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According to the Vitiligo Support International website, of everyone affected by this disease, approximately half of those will experience symptoms before the age of 20 and about 95 percent before the age of 40. It is rare for the disease to appear in infancy, but the symptoms for any age remain the same. You will notice white, or light patches of skin appearing and increasing in size. These patches may be anywhere on the body, including in and around the mouth or nose. Some people have experienced a loss of hair or even premature graying and whitening of hair follicles.
The exact cause of vitiligo is still unknown, but there are several theories as to why people experience this condition. One theory is that the disease in genetically inherent. According the MayoClinic.com, evidence of this theory is suggested by familial groups that have large numbers of family members with this same disease. Another theory is that vitiligo is actually the result of an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack its own skin cells. An alternative theory is that vitiligo is brought on by stress or emotional influence.
Vitiligo can be categorized into two different groups: localized and generalized. In localized vitiligo, there are three patterns. Focal patterns are limited to a few areas of pigmentation loss. Segmental patterns are limited to either the right or left side of the body. The third pattern, mucousal, affects only the mucous membranes. In the generalized category, there are four patterns. The acrofacial pattern affects mainly the hands, feet, head or face. The vulgaris pattern evenly affects all areas of the body. The mixed pattern is where there are multiple patterns affecting the person--for example, acrofacial and vulgaris patterns combined. The fourth pattern is universal. This occurs when almost all of the skin is affected by loss of pigmentation.
If a doctor or dermatologist suspects that an individual has vitiligo, there are several steps taken to diagnose the disease. While a loss of pigmentation can be linked also to thyroid disease or diabetes, there are some tests that can be taken to help determine cause. Antinuclear antibody, or ANA, testing can be done to rule out or confirm any other type of autoimmune disease. Thyrotropin testing can determine if the patient has thyroid disease and, if so, determine what type. Checking a patient's blood count can also help determine if the disease is, in fact, vitiligo. An eye exam may also help determine if vitiligo is present, due to eye inflammation. Through biopsy, the doctor can use a Wood's light to diagnose vitiligo, as the affected skin will glow if the disease is present.
Vitiligo in infants and children has limited treatment options, as some are unsuitable for the young. Mainly topical treatments such as vitamin D or a topical form of steroids will be used to treat infant vitiligo. Steroids help to "re-pigment" the affected area, while vitamin D can help stimulate the replacement of dead skin cells. In adults, there is also the option of skin grafts, micropigmentation, or tattooing, or melanocyte transplanting. This transplant is done through a skin culture on an unaffected area that causes the skin cells, or melanocyte, to reproduce. It is then transplanted within the depigmented areas. A doctor or dermatologist can best determine the most effective treatment for vitiligo for any age.