Michael Jackson put vitiligo in the spotlight almost two decades ago when he acknowledged that he had the pigmentation disorder. Now vitiligo is back in the spotlight as a result of the manslaughter trial of the late entertainer's doctor.
Want to know more about vitiligo - and see pictures of the disorder? Keep clicking...
What are the symptoms of vitiligo?
Vitiligo causes white patches on the skin. These are commonly found on parts of the body that get the most sun exposure, including thee hands, feet, arms, face, and lips. Other common sites include the underarms, groin, navel, genitals, rectum, nostrils, and around the eyes and mouth.
In addition to white patches, vitiligo can cause premature graying of the hair.
How common is vitiligo?
Vitiligo is believed to affect 0.5 percent to 1 percent of the world's population, or up to 65 million people. That includes 1 million to 2 million people in the U.S. The disorder affects both genders and all races equally but is more noticeable in people with dark skin.
What causes the depigmentation?
Vitiligo develops when skin cells called melanocytes die, according to the website of the American Academy of Dermatology. Melanocytes are what give color to skin and hair.
Do the patches spread?
It depends on the form of vitiligo. So-called "focal" vitiligo (patches on one or a few areas) and "segmented" vitiligo (patches on one side of the body) generally don't spread. But "generalized" vitiligo - often does spread. Sometimes the patches spread slowly, sometimes fast. There's some evidence that physical and emotional stress can contribute to the spread.
Is the condition hereditary?
Vitiligo can run in families. About 30 percent of people with vitiligo have a family member who is also affected, although most people don't get the disorder even if a parent has it.
But heredity isn't the only factor. Vitiligo seems to be linked to certain autoimmune disease, including an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) and a condition known as adrenocortical insufficiency, in which the adrenal glands don't produce enough of the hormone known as corticosteroid.
How is vitiligo diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose vitiligo on the basis of a physical exam and a medical history. To confirm the diagnosis, the doctor might biopsy the affected skin. And he/she might also order blood tests to check for anemia and other conditions that are sometimes associated with vitiligo.
How is vitiligo treated?
Vitiligo is hard to treat. But cosmetics can help, and there are a number of treatments that can minimize, camouflage, or even eliminate the white patches. These include steroid creams and a treatment known as photochemotherapy, in which drugs and ultraviolet light are used in combination. People who have vitiligo on more than 50 percent of their bodies may benefit from depigmentation, in which patients apply a drug that fades the skin to match the depigmented areas. Other treatments include skin grafts and tattooing the depigmented skin to make it darker.
What else can people to do manage vitiligo?
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends limiting exposure to the sun, using sunscreen every day and wearing sun-protective clothing. Tanning beds should be avoided. So should tattoos. The skin damage a tattoo causes can lead to a new patch of vitiligo. Support groups can be helpful. These include the American Vitiligo Research Foundation, the National Vitiligo Foundation, and VitiligoSupport.com.