Vitiligo is a chronic (long-lasting) autoimmune disorder that causes patches of skin to lose pigment or color. This happens when melanocytes – skin cells that make pigment – are attacked and destroyed, causing the skin to turn a milky-white color.

In vitiligo, the white patches usually appear symmetrically on both sides of your body, including both hands and knees. Sometimes, there can be a rapid loss of color or pigment and even cover a large area.

The segmental subtype of vitiligo is much less common and happens when the white patches are only on one segment or side of your body, such as a leg, one side of the face, or one arm. This type of vitiligo often begins at an early age and progresses for 6 to 12 months, and then usually stops.

Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease. Usually, the immune system works throughout your body to fight off and defend your body from viruses, bacteria, and infections. In people with autoimmune diseases, immune cells mistakenly attack the body's own healthy tissues. People with vitiligo may also be more likely to develop other autoimmune disorders.

A person with vitiligo occasionally may have family members who also have the disease. Although there is no cure for vitiligo, treatments can be very effective at stopping the progression and reversing its effects, which may help skin tone appear more even.

Who Gets Vitiligo?

Anyone can get vitiligo, and it can develop at any age. However, for many people with vitiligo, the white patches appear before age 20 and can start in early childhood.

Vitiligo seems to be more common in people who have a family history of the disorder or who have certain autoimmune diseases, including:

  • Addison's disease.
  • Pernicious anemia.
  • Psoriasis.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus.
  • Thyroid disease.
  • Type 1 diabetes.

Symptoms of Vitiligo

The main symptom of vitiligo is loss of natural color or pigment, called depigmentation. The depigmented patches can appear anywhere on your body and can affect the following:

  • Skin, which develops milky-white patches, often on the hands, feet, arms, and face. However, the patches can appear anywhere.
  • Hair can turn white in areas where the skin is losing pigment. This can happen on the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, beard, and body hair.
  • Mucous membranes, such as the inside of your mouth or nose.

People with vitiligo can also develop the following:

  • Low self-esteem or a poor self-image from concerns about appearance can affect the quality of life.
  • Uveitis is a general term that describes inflammation or swelling in the eye.
  • Inflammation in the ear.
Causes of Vitiligo

Scientists believe that vitiligo is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system attacks and destroys the melanocytes. In addition, researchers continue to study how family history and genes may play a role in causing vitiligo. Sometimes an event – such as sunburn, emotional distress, or exposure to a chemical – can trigger vitiligo or worsen it.