Vitiligo is a disorder that causes white patches to develop on the skin. The patches vary in size and location, though they appear most often on skin that is exposed to the sun. The white patches are a result of the loss of skin pigment.
The pigment loss may be related to a problem with the immune system. Your doctor usually can make the diagnosis by examining your skin, but laboratory tests may be necessary to rule out other diseases. Vitiligo is not life-threatening, but it is a lifelong disease that cannot be cured. The primary symptom of vitiligo is the presence of white patches on the skin. The texture of the patches is the same as the normal skin--the patches are flat and smooth. The borders may be regular or irregular in shape, and the skin around the border may be discolored (red or brown).
The affected skin may be itchy, but in general there are no other symptoms associated with the patches. The patches may appear suddenly or gradually and may stay the same, regain color or get worse over time.
Vitiligo patches usually appear first on skin that is exposed to the skin, such as the face, neck and hands. Other areas of skin that may lose pigment include the following:
Skin around mouth and eyes
Fingers and wrists
When vitiligo affects hair roots it may cause premature graying (turning gray before age 35) of scalp hair, eyelashes, eyebrows or beard.
The extensiveness of vitiligo varies from person to person. Some people may have fewer, smaller patches, others may have patches that blend together to cover large areas of skin. If you have a patch of vitiligo it is likely that more patches will appear, but the timing is unpredictable.
Vitiligo is classified as segmental or nonsegmental. The nonsegmental form is the most common and accounts for 90% of all cases of vitiligo. Characteristics of nonsegmental vitiligo include the following:
Patches on back of hands, arms, eyes, knees elbows and feet
Patches are on both sides of the body (bilateral), often appearing at the same location on each side (symmetrical)
Characteristics of nonsegmental vitiligo:
Appears on one side of the body (unilateral)
More common in children (30% of children with vitiligo have the segmental form)
Another variant of vitiligo is universal or complete vitiligo. In these cases the entire body is affected.