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Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease caused by a decrease in the production of the substance that gives color to our skin: melanin. Its causes are not well known and treatment is difficult, but patients have several options to cope and live with it.

What is vitiligo?

Autoimmune diseases are caused by an alteration in our immune system, which attacks our own tissues and organs as if they were not our own. This reaction can cause damage to a variety of cells and depending on how intense the attack is of our own immune system to a certain organ, it can cause from mild to severe consequences.

Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease that affects the skin of patients by promoting the discoloration of certain regions of the body.

Giving color to our skin

Vitiligo affects melanocytes, special cells that have the function of producing melanin, the pigment that gives color to our skin, eyes and hair. Melanin production differs from person to person and is mainly determined by our genes. This is why there are differences in skin color all around the world.

Melanin protects us from UV light, since it absorbs most of it and prevents damage to skin cells.

Contrary to what you may think, the intensity of skin color does not depend on the number of melanocytes that we have, but on how active they are.  Certain situations can over activate the activity of melanocytes. For example, exposure to UV rays increases their activity and therefore, melanin production, giving as a result a darker skin.

What happens in patients with vitiligo?

Known also as leucodema, vitiligo is considered to be a disease caused by an autoimmune reaction. The immune system of the patient no longer recognizes his or her melanocytes and attacks them, causing melanocyte’s death.

Why does the immune system go mad? This is not known.  The reason could be related to both genetic and environmental factors, such as trauma to the skin, hormonal changes and stress, but scientists have not been able to establish why the immune system looses tolerance to melanocytes, specifically in this case.

Because melanocytes get damaged and die, melanin production decreases in the areas were the number of melanocytes is reduced, giving as a result the patchy appearance that is visible in patients suffering from vitiligo.

Vitiligo is not specific of any age, since it can affect from children to old adults. Although, research has detected that vitiligo tends to appear before the age of 20.

Symptoms and diagnosis of vitiligo

Vitiligo does not cause any type of pain and its main symptom comprises the formation of flat areas of skin without pigmentation.

These areas have normal skin, except for the lack of color they show, and they appear mainly on the face, hands and feet, elbows and knees and on the genital area.

Because there is no melanin present in those areas, they are more prone to suffer sunburns, as they lack of the natural protection against UV light.

Vitiligo rarely affects hair and eyes, even though there are melanocytes present in those regions also.  

Depending on the type of vitiligo, colorless skin patches can be symmetrical and can be found in both the front and back parts of the body, or segmental when light skin patches localize in just one side and do not spread to other areas. 
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