Vitiligo is a long-term condition where pale white patches develop on the skin. These discolored areas usually get bigger with time.

Normally, the color of hair and skin is determined by melanin. Vitiligo occurs when cells that produce melanin die or otherwise stop functioning. Vitiligo affects people of all skin types, but it might be more noticeable in people with darker skin.

Q: What causes vitiligo?

A: Although the causes of vitiligo aren’t completely understood, there are a number of different theories:

• Autoimmune Disorder: Your immune system may develop antibodies that destroy melanocytes.

• Genetic factors: Vitiligo can be inherited. About 30% of vitiligo cases run in families.

• Neurogenic factors: A substance that is toxic to melanocytes may be released at nerve endings in the skin.

• Self-destruction of cells: A defect in the melanocytes causes them to destroy themselves.

Q: What are the symptoms?

A: You’ll often lose pigment quickly on several areas of your skin. After the white patches appear, they may stay the same for a while, but later on, they might get bigger. Also, you may have cycles of pigment loss and stability.

Q: Who is likely to get vitiligo?

A: Up to 2% of the population and an estimated 2 million to 5 million Americans have this condition. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. In most cases, it develops early in life, between ages 10 and 30. It will almost always show up before age 40.

Q: Is vitiligo serious?

A: No, it’s not a serous condition. And it is not in any way contagious, either.

Q: Where on the body is vitiligo most likely to appear:

A: Vitiligo commonly affects: Body folds (like armpits); places that have been injured in the past; areas exposed to sun; around moles; around body openings; mucous membranes (tissues that line your nose and mouth). It can also affect eyelids and hair.

Q: How is vitiligo treated?

A: There is no cure for vitiligo. However, there’s something that can be done to help you regain color in your skin. UVB light can be used on the affected areas to spur re-pigmentation. This technique signals your body to produce healthy new skin cells to take the place of the affected cells in the depigmented areas. There is a promising cream under study, not yet FDA-approved, that helps improve vitiligo in about 30% of patients.

Q: How many UVB treatments would I need?

A: The answer to this depends upon the extent of your vitiligo. Most likely, bi-weekly treatments until the problem is resolved would be needed. Your dermatologist can help provide you with a timeline.

Check with a dermatologist to learn more about ways to reverse the effects of vitiligo.

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.