Vitiligo is a genetic, autoimmune skin disease causing loss of pigment from areas of the skin, resulting in irregular white spots or patches. Vitiligo affects about 0.5% to 1% of the population and can start at any age, but about half of those with vitiligo develop it before the age of 20, and about 95% before age 40. It affects both genders, and all races and ethnicities. Generalized vitiligo is a progressive disease resulting in somewhat unpredictable cycles of spreading and cycles of stability throughout life.
Vitiligo is not contagious in any way. The precise cause of vitiligo is not well-understood, though it seems to be the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some people have reported a single event, such as sunburn or emotional distress, to trigger the condition. Heredity may be a factor because there is an increased incidence of vitiligo in some families. About 30% of affected individuals may report a positive family history (i.e. aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparent). The risk for children of affected individuals to develop vitiligo themselves is thought to be about 5%. Though the condition is not usually physically painful, the psychological and social effects are well-documented. It can be especially devastating to children and those with darker skin.
Today there is still no cure for vitiligo, but more worldwide research is being conducted than ever before, and treatment options are improving. New technologies and research are changing physicians’ approaches to the condition, and recent mapping of the human genome has paved the way for advanced genetic research.