Whether fair, dark, or any shade in between, most kids have skin that is generally the same color all over their body. But this isn't the case for those with vitiligo.
Vitiligo is a loss of skin pigment, or color, that causes white spots or patches to appear on the skin. No one knows exactly why this happens, but we do know it affects people of both sexes and all races. In the United States alone, an estimated 1 to 2 million people have the condition, and more than half of them are kids and teens.
The good news is that vitiligo — upsetting as it can be to those who are living with it — isn't medically dangerous. It's not a form of skin cancer, it's not an infection like MRSA, and it's definitely not contagious. In fact, most kids who have it are every bit as healthy as everyone else.
Vitiligo is a skin disorder that affects the melanocytes, cells deep within the epidermis (the outermost layer of the skin) whose function is to produce melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its color and helps protect it from the sun.
Our skin color is determined not by how many melanocytes we have (we're all born with a similar amount), but rather by how active they are. Dark-skinned people have cells that naturally produce a lot of melanin, while light-skinned people produce much less.
Sometimes, though, skin cells suddenly stop producing melanin. At first, this might cause a spot, called a macule, whose color is much lighter than the skin around it. But in time these light patches may spread and grow to cover a larger portion of the body. Sometimes the spread happens quickly, and then remains stable for a number of years; other times it happens slowly, over a longer period of time.
Dermatologists label the types of vitiligo according to the amount and location of the patches:
- focal vitiligo happens when there are just a few spots in a single area
- generalized vitiligo is associated with many spots all over the body that tend to be symmetrical (they affect the right and left sides of the body like a mirror image). This is the most common form of the condition.
- segmental vitiligo is characterized by spots only on one side of the body and usually nowhere else. This type of vitiligo is relatively uncommon.
Although vitiligo can occur anywhere on the body, it's more likely to happen in:
- areas that are exposed to the sun, such as the face or hands
- skin that has folds, such as the elbows, knees, or groin
- skin around orifices (body openings), such as the eyes, nostrils, belly button, and genital area
Although kids of all races are affected equally, spots tend to be more visible on those with darker skin.
Sometimes kids with vitiligo have other symptoms, such as premature graying of the hair or a loss of pigment on the lips, since pigment cells are found in these places, too.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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