This content was last reviewed in September 2019 by Nikki Porges, a registered nurse in our Health at Hand team.
Vitiligo is a skin condition characterised by patches of skin which is paler than the skin surrounding it, usually pink or white. It is caused by a lack of melanin, the colour pigment in skin and affects 1% of the population in the world, so it is quite common.
Though the precise cause of vitiligo is unknown, research suggests it may be an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system creates antibodies (which usually fight infection or disease) that attack and destroy Melanocytes, the cells which make Melanin.
Vitiligo can affect people with different skin tones, but is usually more noticeable in people with darker skins and appears as pink skin. It is not contagious in any way, but it is not yet known if it is hereditary. There is no cure for the disease and in 50% of the people who developed it, started in the teenage years.
Vitiligo usually starts on the hands and face but a doctor can also use an ultraviolet light called a “Wood’s Lamp” on people with pale skin to reveal affected areas that do not show up readily. If your doctor does think you have vitiligo, he will need to assess you for other auto immune disorders such as Thyroid disease and may ask you if you have other symptoms that indicate autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or coeliac disease.
However, there are other causes for pale skin patches, depending upon your age and condition of health:
Tinea Versicolour (Ptyriasis Versicolour) is used to describe the overgrowth of malassezia, a yeast which is a normal part of the skin’s flora. However, oily skin, hot or humid environments and excessive sweating can all cause this yeast to increase in numbers, causing small white areas on the face, neck abdomen, thighs or upper arms. It is not contagious and can be treated with an over the counter anti-fungal cream or wash.
Pityriasis Alba is also a skin condition that causes small white patches that tend to be more noticeable when pale skin becomes tanned. The cause is unknown and it is not known to be contagious. There is no cure but the affected areas usually return to normal pigmentation.
Poor nutrition can also cause white patches on the skin, usually a poor diet deficient in Vitamin E, D and Calcium. A more balanced diet and possible dietary supplements in consultation with your GP will reduce and help these patches to fade.
References: britishskinfoundation.org, Primary care Dermatology Society
Answered by the Health at Hand team.
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