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The patchy, discolored effect of vitiligo looks dramatic, especially on African-Americans and darker-skinned people, but the condition isn't medically dangerous. Vitiligo refers to a skin problem that involves a loss of brown pigment from the skin. Michael Jackson famously suffered from the disease, which is actually pretty common; about 1 percent of Americans are affected by vitiligo.
People suffering from vitiligo develop milky-white patches on their skin where the brown pigment has disappeared. These white patches usually occur on skin that has been exposed to the sun, like your hands, face or arms, although you can also get them on your genitals or other areas. Some people also experience premature white or gray hair, loss of pigment in the mucous membranes in the mouth or loss of color in the retina, but these additional symptoms aren't as common.
Causes and Risk Factors
Doctors don't know what causes vitiligo, which occurs when the melanocytes in your skin quit making melanin. Vitiligo seems to run in some families, and it may be related to immune system disorders. Most people with a family history of vitiligo don't get the condition, though, and most people with vitiligo don't have immune problems, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Sunburn, emotional distress or skin cancer may trigger an outbreak of vitiligo, but again, doctors aren't sure why. Men and women are equally likely to get the disease; most people show symptoms before age 40.
Vitiligo sometimes disappears on its own. Plus, the disorder may not be visible on people with light skin. However, many people seek treatment to restore missing pigment or remove the remaining pigment. Treatment options include topical corticosteroids, topical immunomodulators, photochemotherapy, narrowband UVB therapy, depigmentation, skin grafts or tattoos. Some people also cope by using concealer or sunless tanning lotion to hide white patches. If you're bothered by vitiligo, don't put off treatment -- starting treatment early ups your chances for pigment restoration. And don't forget to wear sunscreen -- the white skin patches caused by vitiligo are extra-sensitive to UV rays.
Even if vitiligo isn't medically dangerous, it's easy to feel self-conscious about skin issues in our beauty-obsessed culture. Living with vitiligo can seem scary, but take a deep breath and remember that you're not alone. Joining a support group is a good way to meet other patients and learn to cope with the disease. Locate support groups by contacting the National Vitiligo Foundation or Vitiligo Support International. In addition, tell your doc if you think you might have depression, anxiety or other problems.