June 25th is world vitiligo day. It is a day that gives us an opportunity to raise awareness of what this autoimmune condition and to shed light on vitiligo treatments, the truth about so called ‘cures for vitiligo’ and to provide support to those that need it.
Here are 7 common questions patients ask about their vitiligo
1. What is Vitiligo and how did I get it?
0.5-2% of the world’s population have vitiligo. People of all ages and races are
affected. So what causes vitiligo?
Genetics strongly influence the risk of developing vitiligo, but it is not the only factor. Scientific research shows that those with vitiligo have genetically ‘weaker’ melanocytes that are more susceptible to ‘stressors’ or ‘insults.’ When melanocytes become stressed, they release inflammatory signals which activate the immune system.
There are many known environmental factors that play a role in vitiligo. One of them is rhododendrol. This was linked to an ‘outbreak’ of vitiligo (over 16,000 cases reported) in Japan due to a skin lightening product that contained the ingredient rhododendrol. Monobenzylether of hydroquinone is another ingredient that can trigger vitiligo. Both of these substances are phenols which interfere with the production of melanin.
2. Is vitiligo caused by certain foods?
Some cultural groups believe that mixing fish and yoghurt cause vitiligo while others think a gluten-free diet can cure vitiligo but there is no scientific evidence that shows that any food causes vitiligo.
Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease. Other autoimmune conditions like type 1 diabetes, thyroid problems and coeliac disease are more common in those with vitiligo. Some of these autoimmune conditions cause vitamin deficiencies or require special diets but vitiligo itself is not a result of certain food groups or combinations of food.
To learn more about diet and vitiligo, click here on our blog:
3. Does vitiligo increase my risk of skin cancer?
Vitiligo does not increase the risk of skin cancer. Research has shown that those with vitiligo are three times less likely to develop melanoma and non-melanoma type skin cancers than those without vitiligo. Great news for those with vitiligo.
But this doesn’t mean that you can hit the beach every day, attend tanning salons (if you are in a country that still allows them!) or ditch your sunscreen.
Parts of the skin that are affected with vitiligo will burn in the sun more easily. Sunscreen and appropriate clothing are critical in preventing sunburn. Patients who are receiving light therapy (phototherapy/narrow-band ultra-violet light B) as part of their treatment plan, need to wear protective clothing and hats, sunscreen and sunglasses and seek shade to prevent tanning and burning because they are already getting ultra-violet light during treatment.
4. Am I more at risk of COVID-19 because of my vitiligo?
Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease that affects the skin. It is not caused by a ‘poor’ or ‘low’ immune system. A small part of the immune system is just ‘misbehaving’ in those with vitiligo. Instead of doing things like fighting infections or keeping cancer at bay, the immune system misbehaves and starts attacking the pigment cells (melanocytes) in the skin, causing white spots to develop.
People with vitiligo are most likely not at increased risk of developing COVID-19 or complications associated with the infection. Topical treatments and light therapy, though they theoretically are ‘suppressing the immune system,’ it is only acting locally in the skin itself. Very little (if any at all) goes beyond the skin, so these are not going to suppress your overall immune system.
Some patients, however, may be having treatment with oral steroids. Theoretically we are suppressing the immune system with this medication but the doses are so low and it is generally used for short periods of time.
It is important to talk to your vitiligo specialist if you have any questions about your particular situation.
5. Can you actually get pigment back in vitiligo?
Yes we can! Many patients have been told by family, friends, medical doctors and
dermatologists that vitiligo cannot be treated. This is simply not true for the majority
The founder of Chroma Dermatology, Dr. Rodrigues is proud to have changed the
landscape of vitiligo and vitiligo treatment in Australia over the last decade. Through
her collaboration with vitiligo experts abroad, medical research has been published
to increase awareness of vitiligo and to set global guidelines for the treatment of
patients with vitiligo.
Dr. Rodrigues states “A tailored treatment approach needs to be organised. The
patient’s age, location of vitiligo, the type of vitiligo and the prognostic clinical signs
need to be carefully evaluated.” Getting pigment back is half the battle, the other is
keeping the pigment there once you do get it back and for this Dr. Rodrigues
believes maintenance therapy needs to be considered. She advises those with vitiligo
to seek an expert opinion on this aspect of treatment.
Topical creams, ointments and lotions, phototherapy (narrow-band ultra-violet light
B) and even oral tablets can be used to re-pigment vitiligo. Surgical techniques can
also be used for those with stable or segmental vitiligo. For more about vitiligo and
how you give yourself for your loved one the best possible chance of regaining and
maintaining pigment over time, click here
6. Are there any new treatments on the horizon for vitiligo?
It’s an exciting time for those who specialise in the diagnosis and treatment of vitiligo. In the last 5 years there has been an explosion of knowledge about the cause of vitiligo and the parts of the immune system that are misbehaving in this condition. Targeting specific parts of the immune system with medications like JAK-inhibitors are already being trialled in cream and tablet forms.
7. How can I support my friend of family member with vitiligo?
This is a hard question and the precise answer will depend on the individuals situation.
In general, many just want to have a supportive community of others with vitiligo and want to be able to access truthful, scientifically-grounded information about vitiligo and vitiligo treatments.
Some helpful sources of information include:
The information contained in this blog post is intended as a guide only and should not substitute seeking medical attention. Please see your healthcare provider for more information on suitability of products, treatments or procedures.