Signs and Symptoms of Vitiligo

woman with vitiligo looking at her face in the mirror

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Vitiligo is an autoimmune skin condition that causes patches of skin to lighten or completely lose their color. This can occur when the immune system attacks melanocytes—or, the skin cells that make pigment, causing the skin to turn into a milky white color. 

The condition can affect people of all ages and skin tones. When you first develop vitiligo, you may notice small, discolored patches which eventually grow larger as your condition progresses. Depending on the type of vitiligo you have, you might experience patches:

  • That are localized, or present in just one part of the body 
  • On multiple body parts 
  • Spread throughout the body, though this is rare 

It’s important to note that the patches are not contagious. Patches are painless and feel normal when touched, but they may be more sensitive to sunburn. In addition to skin changes, vitiligo can also affect your hair, eyes, and ears. If you have vitiligo, you might feel sensitive or conscious about your appearance, which may also affect your mental health.

Skin Symptoms

Vitiligo primarily affects the skin, causing patches of depigmentation—or loss of color. While you can develop patches on any part of your body, patches commonly appear symmetrically on both sides of your body in the:

  • Face
  • Elbows 
  • Knees
  • Backs of the hands and feet
  • Genitals 

Vitiligo patches often arise with a more faded appearance of your skin tone at first. Later on, these patches turn pink and then become more distinctly white over time. They’re also irregular in shape and can range a great deal in size, depending on the type of vitiligo you have. 

How far your patches spread can vary from person to person. Dermatologists (or, doctors who specialize in the skin) have identified several types of vitiligo:

  • Localized vitiligo: Occurs when there are a few patches of discoloration in one specific part of the body
  • Generalized vitiligo: Happens when the patches are scattered throughout multiple body parts
  • Universal vitiligo: A rare type of vitiligo that develops when patches spread so much that all or nearly all of the skin loses its color
  • Non-segmental vitiligo: The most common type of vitiligo which causes symmetrical patches on both sides of the body  

Generally, people with vitiligo don’t experience pain when they develop patches. But in some cases, you might feel itchy when patches start to grow. You might also notice that your skin is more prone to sunburn. Skin pigmentation helps protect your skin from sun exposure, so as you begin to lose color, your skin becomes more sensitive to sunlight.

Hair Symptoms

In some cases, vitiligo can also affect your hair. As your condition progresses, you might also notice some strands of your hair prematurely turning white.

This can happen in any part of the body where you have hair, though most people experience hair color changes in the hair on their scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, mustache, and beard. Sometimes however, if your patches appear on your limbs, you may also notice the hair on your arms and legs turn white.

Eye Symptoms

People with vitiligo often notice patches on their face and near their eyes. However, vitiligo can sometimes affect the cells in your eyes—and not just the skin around them. 

Melanocytes are present in both the skin and the eyeballs. If your condition spreads to your face and around your eyes, your eyes can also change. Those who experience eye changes typically have inflammation in the retina (or, the light-sensitive inner layer of the eye) and color changes in the iris (or, the part of your eye that produces the colored tissue on your pupil). As a result, you may feel your eyes becoming more sensitive or the color of your pupils changing.

In very rare and serious cases, vitiligo can also cause changes in your vision. Your healthcare provider or dermatologist may recommend regular visits to an eye specialist (such as an optometrist or ophthalmologist) to monitor your eye health.

Ear Symptoms

Some people with vitiligo also experience ear-related symptoms. The condition can sometimes affect your ear canal as it progresses. 

While the main function of melanocytes is to produce skin pigment, these cells also support your hearing in the inner ear. Though this is less common, if vitiligo spreads to your ears, you might notice changes in your hearing. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, anywhere from 12% to 38% of people with vitiligo have some form of hearing loss that accompanies their skin patches.

Mental Health Symptoms

Although it’s not a direct symptom of vitiligo, having a skin condition that changes your skin tone can affect your mental health. People with the condition may become self-conscious or embarrassed about their appearance, which can lead to lower self-esteem. 

Having vitiligo can also prevent you from wanting to participate in social situations, which can raise your risk of social isolation, fear of socializing, depression, and anxiety.

When to See a Healthcare Provider 

While vitiligo is not life-threatening—and its symptoms won’t call for emergency medical attention—the condition can affect your physical and emotional well-being. 

If you begin to notice changes in your skin tone, it’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider to understand why these changes are happening. They will likely work with a dermatologist to help with testing measures and making an accurate diagnosis. If you are currently living with vitiligo, it’s also important to stay in touch with your provider as they can help you monitor other changes to your health, such as your vision and hearing. 

Vitiligo can also affect your mental health. If you feel embarrassed or self-conscious about your condition, you are not alone. Many people with vitiligo want to hide their condition at first and it may take some time to get used to your new skin—and that’s OK. However, if your condition is affecting your daily life, it may be a good idea to join a vitiligo support group or talk to your healthcare provider about a referral to a mental health specialist. 

A Quick Review 

Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition that occurs when your immune system attacks melanocytes—the cells that produce pigmentation. Over time, you begin to notice changes to your skin tone that eventually turn into milky white patches on your skin.

The condition affects each person with vitiligo differently and no two people’s patches look the same. Most of the time, vitiligo can cause patches on your hands, feet, elbows, knees, and face—though patches can appear anywhere. 

While patches are painless, you may be more prone to sunburn and experience changes in your hair color, hearing, and vision. Many people with vitiligo may also notice a difference in their mental health. If you notice symptoms of vitiligo or feel like your patches are spreading, it’s a good idea to visit your healthcare provider for proper testing, treatment options, and mental health support. 

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