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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read

Vitiligo occurs when pigment (melanin) is lost from areas of skin, leaving behind white patches. The patches can grow in size and merge. These patches may be a little itchy but are not otherwise bothersome.

The main complaint is the appearance of these patches, and the loss of self-confidence that comes with it. This requires specialist attention to treat, with the aim of stopping new patches from forming. If it's caught early enough, there's the possibility of reversing white areas to allow pigment to gradually come back. For this reason, it's important to see your doctor.

Doctor’s advice

Can you catch vitiligo?

You cannot "catch" vitiligo from others. It's an autoimmune condition, where the body attacks itself (in this case, melanocytes, the cells that make melanin), and it may run in families.

Other conditions may mimic this, for example, an area of inflammation may reduce the pigment as the skin heals, or a fungal infection can do the same. But in these conditions, the pigment is reduced rather than lost, so the patches are a lighter color compared to your normal skin tone, rather than the stark white seen in vitiligo. The contrast is seen most obviously with darker skin tones; patches on Caucasian skin may appear pink. In sun-exposed areas, these areas need particular protection from the sun, as melanin usually does this job.

About half of sufferers notice patches by the age of 20, with most others developing them before 30. Vitiligo affects all races, although there is a higher incidence in Indians from the Indian subcontinent, and it affects men and women equally.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

Due to the lower levels of pigment in the skin, sufferers of vitiligo must be conscious when out in direct sunlight, as they may be prone to sunburn. As for everyone when at risk of the sun's UV rays, use a high-factor sun cream, slip on a shirt, and plop a hat on your head to cover up. The increased risk of sunburn and the areas affected by vitiligo lack melanin, meaning there is increased risk of harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Melanin provides some natural protection against sun damage, including the development of skin cancer.

Am I fit for work?

You are fit for work if you have vitiligo.

Pharmacists' further explanation of the treatments

You should book a routine appointment with your doctor if you notice stark white patches on areas of your body. With your consent, they will examine you and, depending on their assessment, will either start you on treatment (for vitiligo, this is a high-dose steroid cream), or refer you to a dermatologist.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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