Vitiligo affects people all across the world irrespective of age, sex, and color. Although most people think that leucoderma and vitiligo are one and the same thing, it is not so. Leucoderma is a condition where depigmentation, or the development of brown patches on the skin occurs. Whereas in vitiligo, only depigmentation of the skin occurs, which leads to the development of white patches.
There are various types of this skin affliction:
- Non-segmental: In the non-segmental type, there is a pattern of symmetry that is often noted, wherein there are similar patches seen on both hands and feet and other areas.
- Segmental: In the segmental type, the areas affected are normally those associated with the dorsal roots from the spine. It is relatively more serious, as this type spreads faster, and without timely treatment, the patches of skin discoloration and depigmentation may remain for life.
- Vitiligo universalis: This is the most serious type, where almost the entire skin undergoes depigmentation, and there is very little pigmented skin left.
The exact cause, unfortunately, is not known. However, it is almost unanimously agreed upon that this condition is an autoimmune disorder. This is so because the pathogenesis entails the destruction of melanocytes in the skin. The skin is made up of two types of cells - keratinocytes and melanocytes. In vitiligo, for reasons unknown, the white blood cells start attacking the melanocytes as they mistakenly identify them as foreign bodies and kill them. The melanocytes are the cells that give the skin its brownish tinge. Hence, when there is destruction of these cells, there are appearances of white patches. It is no wonder then that this ailment prominently figures in the list of autoimmune diseases. There are certain other theories proposed regarding the cause as well, like some researchers claim that the melanocytes undergo apoptosis, i.e., self-destruction. Some also believe that the cause might be hereditary in nature. Certain conditions are said to precipitate the occurrence of this disorder, like stress, thyroid disorders, preexistence of an autoimmune illness, physical injuries etc.
There are not many symptoms, as the most common and obvious symptom is the appearance of white patches on the skin. These white patches on the skin mostly start showing on the extremities first, with the patches eventually increasing in size and severity. There is often loss of hair in these patches, due to which, if this condition is seen on the scalp, then there are irregular bald patches seen in conjunction with the loss of pigmentation. Depigmentation is also commonly seen around body orifices, like the mouth, eyes, nostrils, etc. Normally, the visible features suffice to reach a diagnosis, but to reach a final diagnosis, it is always better to examine the skin under a special kind of light with the help of a diagnostic tool known as Wood's lamp. The doctor may also take a skin sample under anesthesia for microscopic examination.
Regrettably, there is no fixed and definitive treatment for this condition. However, there are a number of ways to mitigate the symptoms and prevent its spread. One of the most common approaches to treating this rare skin condition is with the help of special lamps. These lamps constitute a part of phototherapy, wherein the depigmented patches are exposed to light rays, that have a wavelength of only 311 - 313 nanometer, thus, ensuring that there is no heat exposure. This option shows very successful results, especially in cases of children. However, for cases that do not respond to phototherapy, most doctors resort to prescribing topical steroids. If all else fails, patients are recommended to go for surgical options. There are numerous ointments and medications that offer natural cures, but the effectiveness of these creams is still under research.
Although vitiligo is not a serious or fatal skin condition, it often has terrible repercussions on the person's mental health. Many a time, people suffering from this disorder are looked down upon and discriminated. This is most acutely felt in cases of children, where such school kids are often the subject of ridicule at the hands of bullies. Thus, the need of the hour is not only to simply find a cure for this disease, but also to spread awareness about this mild and absolutely harmless physical condition so that the unhealthy discrimination that is rampant is done away with at the earliest. Let us always remember, that when it comes to vitiligo disease, Michael Jackson and Amitabh Bachchan also suffered and overcame this condition to make their mark in society.