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Vitiligo, the skin pigment disorder made famous by Michael Jackson, isn't medically dangerous nor contagious, but it can certainly be life-changing. Have you noticed lighter patches on your skin and are you wondering whether you could be affected?

Do you think you could be suffering from vitiligo, a pigment disorder that causes the appearance of white patches on the skin? You will, no doubt, have many questions. What causes the disorder, how do you know it's not something else, how do you get diagnosed, and is there anything you can do to treat vitiligo or at least prevent its spread to other areas of the body?

What Is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is the white-patch causing skin pigment disorder made famous by Michael Jackson — but did you know that Holly Marie Combs, the Charmed star, also has it, along with NBA player Rasheed Wallace? Together, they make it quite clear that vitiligo affects people in rather varying ways, and that skin tone in large part determines how visible it will be.

In people affected by vitiligo, melanocytes, the cells responsible for creating pigment, are destroyed in the areas where the white patches form.

Skin on any part of the body can be impacted, though the white patches commonly appear in areas where the skin has had plenty of sun exposure, such as the hands, feet, and face. Besides skin, mucus membranes, hair, and even the retina can also be impacted by depigmentation.

It's still not quite clear what causes vitiligo. There's certainly a genetic component; people with immediate relatives already suffering from the disorder are more likely to develop it themselves. As seen by the fact that sun-exposed areas are more commonly struck by depigmentation, it is clear that environmental factors also play a role. What's more, many medical professionals are quite convinced that vitiligo is, in fact, an autoimmune disorder.

Vitiligo is equally common in men and women, and though the disorder is bound to be more visible in people with darker skin tones, no ethnic group is more prone to developing vitiligo than others. The first signs of vitiligo typically appear when someone is in their twenties. 

Think You Might Have Vitiligo?

If you have noticed the appearance of white patches of skin or mucus membranes that do not improve with time, and you have not been exposed to skin lightening chemicals, you may have developed vitiligo, or you could be dealing with another disorder that causes depigmentation.

In order to obtain the correct diagnosis, it is important to seek medical help despite the fact that vitiligo isn't in any way medically dangerous.

(And no, it certainly isn't contagious either, despite the fact that some people you encounter will think this.)

Differential diagnoses include:

  • Pityriasis alba, a pigment disorder that is most commonly seen in children and related to eczema. This disorder can be treated with Hydrocortisone, though it typically resolves on its own by adulthood. In this case, the white patches gradually fade into the surrounding skin, and are round-ish or oval shaped.
  • Halo nevi are moles with white patches around them.
  • Tinea versicolor, the appearance of which is more striking, is in fact caused by a yeast infection and benefits from anti-fungal treatment.

Blood tests, a skin biopsy, and an eye exam can rule out other conditions before you are diagnosed with vitiligo.

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