Vitiligo, a condition which causes people to lose pigmentation in their skin, has been in the spotlight in recent years; in 2018, a famous women’s fashion show selected its first model with vitiligo to walk the runway. Since then, popular culture has seen a long-overdue increase in the visibility and awareness of this disease and the people it affects. So what is vitiligo, and who is affected by it? It’s more common than you might think.
According to this article from the Winter 2020 issue of MedlinePlus Magazine, vitiligo affects about 1% of the United States population. It is usually more pronounced in people with darker skin, though all skin tones are susceptible, and it is more common among people with known autoimmune disorders and those with a family history of the disease. Although it can manifest at any age, most patients notice its appearance before age 40, usually as a small area of decreased pigmentation on the face or pressure point that begins to spread over the body. Some people experience very slow progression while others lose the pigmentation on most of their skin over the course of only a few years. Vitiligo is chronic, progressive, and is still a bit of a medical mystery; scientists and medical professionals are not exactly sure what causes it, how it starts, or how to cure it. A growing body of evidence suggests that vitiligo might be a complex autoimmune disorder of its own, which, like other disorders of this type, essentially makes the body turn on itself, causing otherwise healthy tissue to be attacked and removed as though it was virulent.
Many patients choose to cover the white patches on their skin with cosmetics or turn to other treatments such as skin grafting, bleaching, light therapy, or topical medications. Other people choose to openly embrace their appearance, as in the case of Tonja Johnson. Tonja noticed loss of pigmentation in a small area of her leg when she was 41 years of age; now, at 43, she has lost pigmentation over 80% of her body. She explains in this article how difficult it was to manage at first, how she copes with her dramatically changed appearance now, and what she does to help others manage their diagnosis.
Because vitiligo most often appears in areas that are commonly visible (face, arms, legs), it can be a difficult disorder to manage psychologically as it can drastically change a person’s physical appearance in a very short amount of time. Growing awareness of vitiligo, education on this subject, and continued visibility may help to support patients with this disease.
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