Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition that causes patches of your skin to lose their tone and lighten into a milky white color. This condition occurs when your immune system attacks melanocytes, which are the skin cells that make pigment. Vitiligo can affect any part of your body, but most often appears on the hands, feet, elbows, knees, face, and genitals.
Studies estimate that vitiligo occurs in 0.5% to 2% of the population. While people of all races and ethnic backgrounds can develop vitiligo, you can notice patches more prominently on people with darker skin tones—which can contribute to the stigma surrounding vitiligo in Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
Currently, there is no cure for vitiligo—nor can you prevent the condition from occurring. However, some lifestyle changes and therapies can help slow disease progression and prevent patches from growing bigger.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Like most autoimmune conditions, researchers are still unsure about the exact cause of vitiligo. Some studies theorize that a combination of genetics, immune system dysfunction, and environmental factors can trigger the disease.
Anyone can develop vitiligo—and it’s the most common skin pigmentation condition worldwide. Generally, vitiligo affects men and women, and people of all racial backgrounds equally. However, 70% to 80% of people with the condition receive their diagnosis before turning 30 years old.
A family history of vitiligo can also serve as a risk factor for the condition. But, genetics is only part of the story. Keep in mind: having a gene that increases your risk for vitiligo does not guarantee that you’ll develop the condition.
In fact, in a study looking at identical twins—who have matching genes—researchers found that vitiligo was only present in both twins 23% of the time. This shows that inheriting a gene only plays one role in the development of vitiligo, as other factors are needed to trigger the onset of symptoms.
In addition to these demographic factors, certain autoimmune diseases can also increase the risk of vitiligo. These conditions include:
- Addison’s disease
- Type 1 diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Thyroid disease
Some research also suggests that sunburn, injury to the skin, exposure to certain chemicals and toxins, and stress can trigger the onset of symptoms—though research on the causes and triggers of vitiligo remains ongoing.
How to Reduce Risk
Generally speaking, there’s no way to prevent the onset of vitiligo. While there is no cure, the goal of treatment is to minimize the spread of the condition. However, certain lifestyle changes can help you reduce your condition from worsening.
Limiting Sun Exposure
When you have vitiligo, your skin becomes more sensitive to the sun. You may be at a higher risk for sunburn, skin damage, and worsening vitiligo symptoms. Therefore, dermatologists (or, doctors who specialize in the skin) often recommend avoiding direct exposure to sunlight to prevent the spread of vitiligo and reduce the risk of sun damage on your skin.
To protect your skin from the sun, the Vitiligo Society recommends:
- Using sunscreen: Regularly applying sunscreen with a sun protective factor (SPF) of 25 or more helps protect the skin from ultraviolet (UV) light—which is known to damage the skin. Choose a product that’s waterproof and be sure to re-apply throughout the day.
- Wearing layers: If you’re going to be out in the sun, it’s also a good idea to wear clothing that prevents exposure, such as a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and loose-fitted, but long sleeve clothing.
- Staying in the shade: When possible, avoid direct sun exposure by staying in the shade. This is especially important during the brightest parts of the day—which is typically between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
There are a variety of medications that your healthcare provider may recommend to help prevent vitiligo from spreading throughout your skin. In some cases, more advanced medicines can also help you regain the pigmentation of your original skin tone. Your provider may prescribe you one or more of the following medications, depending on your condition:
If your vitiligo is spreading very rapidly, oral glucocorticoids—such as Rayos (prednisone)—may help slow disease progression. Prednisone is often a first line of treatment and providers will generally recommend a daily dose for two weeks at a time.
This treatment is a type of cream that you can apply directly to your skin. Topical corticosteroids can slow the spread of vitiligo and sometimes help melanocytes produce pigment to restore your skin color. Generally, you can apply this treatment safely up to two times a day.
Topical Calcineurin Inhibitors (TCIs)
Healthcare providers recommend this medication to block the production of calcineurin—a protein that activates the immune system. Because vitiligo is an autoimmune condition, you likely have an overactive immune system that is attacking your skin cells. Thus, the purpose of this treatment is to calm your immune system down. TCIs are also a type of cream you can apply to your vitiligo patches.
If other treatments aren’t preventing the spread of vitiligo, immunosuppressants (or, medications that suppress the activity of your immune system) may help. These medications are not generally the first option for treatment, but if your provider decides that they may be beneficial for your condition, common medications include Otrexup (methotrexate) and Sandimmune (cyclosporine).
Choosing Anti-inflammatory Foods
There is no diet that specifically targets vitiligo. But, your diet might improve symptoms and reduce inflammation and overactivity in your immune system. Researchers suggest incorporating the following types of foods into your meal plan:
- Antioxidants: Foods high in antioxidants like vitamins E and C can help lower inflammation. You may consider trying foods like blueberries or other types of berries, leafy green vegetables (such as spinach or kale), dark chocolate, and nuts.
- Vitamin D: Research has shown that increasing your intake of vitamin D can sometimes ease the spread of vitiligo. You can get a boost of vitamin D in foods such as yogurt, cheese, fatty fish, and eggs.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Experts also suggest that foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids are good to incorporate into your diet if you have an autoimmune condition. These foods include fish, nuts, seeds, and soybeans.
- Phytochemicals: Diets that emphasize phytochemicals—or chemicals that are commonly found in vegetables and fruit—can also help lower inflammation. It may be a good idea to make meals that include more fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, broccoli, leafy greens, and carrots, among others.
Some studies have also found a link between vitiligo and celiac disease—a condition that causes an intolerance to gluten. If your healthcare provider thinks you may be at risk for celiac disease, it might help to adopt a gluten-free diet or reduce your intake of gluten foods.
While some foods can reduce inflammation, other foods may make the inflammation in your immune system worse. As a result, you may want to avoid the following foods:
- Trans fats, which are often found in fried foods, frozen pizza, and baked goods
- Processed meats such as hot dogs, pepperoni, beef jerky, and deli meats
- White bread or pasta
- Sugary drinks
- Alcoholic beverages
Using Vitamins and Herbal Supplements
Alongside the dietary choices you make, taking certain supplements and vitamins may also help reduce inflammation in your immune system—and thus, slow the spread of vitiligo patches. Generally, if you decide to use vitamins or supplements, they should be in combination with other treatments and preventative measures.
You might consider taking one or more of the following vitamins:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Alpha lipoic acid
While research is limited, some evidence suggests that certain herbal supplements might also offer anti-inflammatory effects. These supplements include:
- Ginkgo biloba: Extracts of the leaf of the gingko biloba plant have been shown to reduce inflammation. In two small clinical trials, this herbal supplement slowed the progression of vitiligo.
- Polypodium leucotomos: This tropical plant has antioxidant properties. One clinical trial found that supplements with polypodium leucotomos extracts helped slow vitiligo patches on the face and neck.
- Phyllanthus emblica: Containing vitamin E and antioxidants, phyllanthus emblica— commonly known as amla fruit—may also help slow vitiligo disease progression. One study found that three daily doses of this supplement helped reduce inflammation and slow the spread of patches over a period of six months.
Health provides information for educational purposes only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a licensed doctor.
Based on limited research, this article informs you about possible observed health changes related to the use of complementary or alternative medicine, such as vitamins and supplements. However, not all complementary and alternative medicines have been evaluated for safety and efficacy in clinical trials or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
You should always consult a licensed healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment for any health conditions and inform them about any change you make to your treatment regimen.
Discuss With Your Healthcare Provider
If you think you’re developing vitiligo or begin to notice patches, it’s important to seek out support from your healthcare provider. They can help you get tested, give you an accurate diagnosis, and help you find treatments and preventative measures that slow the disease from progressing.
Once you develop a treatment plan, be sure to keep them in the loop about any major lifestyle or medical changes you plan to try before implementing them into your daily routine.
A Quick Review
Vitiligo is an autoimmune skin condition that causes patches of skin to lose their color. While there is no cure for this condition, avoiding sun exposure, taking medications, and making healthy lifestyle changes are some ways to prevent your condition from worsening.
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