Vitiligo (vih-tih-LYE-go) is a loss of skin pigment that causes white spots or patches to appear on the skin. It's not medically dangerous, but it can affect a person's appearance.
Melanocytes are a type of skin cell that produces melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color and helps protect it from the sun. Although the cause of vitiligo is not clear, it might be that the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy melanocytes. They suddenly stop producing melanin, and light or white patches appear on the skin. These patches can burn and blister easily if the person goes outdoors without sunscreen.
Vitiligo varies from person to person. Someone may have just a few spots in one area or many spots on one or both sides of the body. The patches may grow bigger over time. Pigment cells are also found in the hair, genital area, ears, and eyes, so sometimes vitiligo also involves these parts of the body.
Vitiligo is not contagious and doesn't cause health problems. It appears to run in families, and millions of people worldwide have the condition. Vitiligo can start at any age, but about half of the time it shows up before 20 years of age. It affects people of all races, but the spots are easier to see on those with darker skin.
The most common treatments for vitiligo are prescription creams or light treatments (which are done in the doctor's office). These treatments may help bring color back to the skin.
All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.
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