Vitiligo is a condition that causes depigmentation of parts of the skin, affecting men, women and children of all races. An estimated one to two million people in the U.S. are affected by these white patches on their skin.

Vitiligo is not contagious or life-threatening, but it can be life-altering. Some people develop low self-esteem, no longer want to socialize with friends, or develop serious depression. Most people who have vitiligo, have it for life, so it’s important to develop coping strategies.

Q: What causes vitiligo?

A: The cause of vitiligo is not known, but doctors and researchers have several different theories. Vitiligo may be an autoimmune disease, which happens when the immune system mistakenly attacks some part of one’s own body. In vitiligo, the immune system might destroy the melanocytes in the skin (these are the cells that make the pigment in skin called melanin). When attacked, they can no longer make pigment in normal amounts.

Some people have reported that a single event, such as sunburn or emotional distress, triggered vitiligo; however, these events have not been scientifically proven as causes of vitiligo.

Vitiligo sometimes runs in families. Children whose parents have the disorder are more likely to develop vitiligo. However, most children will not get vitiligo even if a parent has it, and most people with vitiligo do not have a family history of the disorder.

Q: How is vitiligo treated?

A: There are several treatment options to restore color to the white patches of skin. Current treatment options for vitiligo include medical, surgical, and other treatments.

Medical treatments include:

• Medicines (such as topical corticosteroids)

• Medicines that one takes by mouth

• XTRAC Laser

• PUVA, a treatment that combines medicine with ultraviolet A (UVA) light

• Removing the color from other areas so they match the white patches

Surgical treatments include:

• Skin grafts from a person’s own tissues. The doctor takes skin from one area of a patient’s body and attaches it to another area. This is sometimes used for people with small patches of vitiligo.

• Tattooing small areas of skin to apply pigment and diminish the pale appearance of the vitiligo patch.

Other treatments include:

• Sunscreens

• Cosmetics to cover the white patches

Q: Will the white patches of vitiligo spread?

A: There is no way to predict if generalized vitiligo will spread. For some people, the de-pigmented patches do not spread. The disorder is usually progressive, however, and over time the white patches will spread to other areas of the body.

For some people, vitiligo spreads slowly, over many years; for others, spreading occurs rapidly. Some people have reported additional de-pigmentation following periods of physical or emotional stress.

Q: What can I do to cope with vitiligo?

A: If you have vitiligo, you might be upset or depressed about the change in your appearance. Learn as much as you can about the disorder and treatment choices. This can help you make decisions about your treatment.

Some treatments are not right for everyone. If you have questions or concerns call a dermatologist.

Dr. Oswald Lightsey Mikell, certified by the American Board of Dermatology and the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, is the owner of Dermatology Associates of the Lowcountry.