How to Care for Yourself and Your Skin If You Have Vitiligo

But because of the changes in appearance that having vitiligo causes, it can often lead to emotional distress. And because vitiligo is generally accepted to be an autoimmune disease, it can be more common in people with other autoimmune conditions and vice versa.

If you have vitiligo, here are some potential complications to be aware of (and tips for dealing with them).

Vitiligo Doesn’t Cause Other Autoimmune Conditions, But There’s a Close Link

Vitiligo is strongly associated with other autoimmune diseases — in that 15 percent to 25 percent of individuals with the skin disorder are estimated to have another autoimmune disease. (1)

The most common ones are:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Psoriasis
  • Autoimmune thyroid disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Pernicious anemia
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Addison’s disease
  • Alopecia areata

Thyroid disease occurs among people with vitiligo 15 times as frequently as the general population in the United States. Alopecia areata is even more widespread among vitiligo patients, being 31 times more common among patients with vitiligo than the population as a whole. (2)

In addition to these autoimmune diseases, there are a few rare conditions to be on the lookout for as well if you have vitiligo, including: (2)

  • Linear morphea, which results in hardened skin
  • Guillain-Barré syndrome, which occurs when the immune system attacks the nervous system
  • Myasthenia gravis, which causes muscle weakness and fatigue
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, a chronic condition involving cramping, gas, constipation, and diarrhea (3)
  • Sjögren’s syndrome, which results in dryness in the mouth and eyes

It’s not necessarily the case that having vitiligo causes any of these other autoimmune disorders. But experts suspect some of the reasons you have vitiligo in the first place (genetics and environmental triggers) may also put you at a higher risk for other autoimmune conditions.

"Autoimmune conditions do not arise because of vitiligo," says Hal Weitzbuch, MD, a dermatologist in private practice in Calabasas, California. "However, vitiligo is associated with other autoimmune conditions most likely since they are conditions with similar pathophysiology."

If you have vitiligo it’s smart to be aware of these links so you can be tested if you have unexpected or unexplained symptoms.

Can Vitiligo Cause Skin Cancer?

Melanin protects the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays. (4) So it may seem logical that a lack of melanin (as happens when people have vitiligo) must therefore make the skin more susceptible to sun damage and skin cancer.

Dealing With the Emotional Side Effects of Vitiligo

Even though vitiligo usually doesn’t cause pain, itching, or other major physical side effects, being diagnosed with the condition can be emotionally taxing. (7)

A stigma surrounds vitiligo because people view it as not “normal,” Skotnicki says. Some people might avoid interacting with others who have vitiligo out of fear that the condition is contagious. (It’s not.) (8)

The experience of living with vitiligo can be particularly difficult for children because other kids may not realize it’s a medical condition and may not be sensitive to it, inadvertently saying hurtful things or knowingly teasing other children. About 50 percent of patients with vitiligo are diagnosed before age 21, so many deal with the disease during puberty and their teenage years — when adolescents already have a lot on their plates when it comes to understanding the changes happening in their bodies and self-image. (2)

There’s no way to say for sure how troubling the vitiligo will be emotionally because it depends on the case and the person.

You Can Be Healthy and Happy With Vitiligo. Here Are Some Tips for Coping

Given all of the stress and emotions that go along with being diagnosed with vitiligo, having the support of family, friends, and doctors is crucial. Some patients find the support they need from their doctor, while others might need more help. (10)

Emotional Support

Support groups and mental health professionals can be extremely helpful for people with vitiligo, says Adrienne Haughton, MD, director of clinical and cosmetic dermatology at Stony Brook Medicine in Commack, New York. You can find a support group in your area through Vitiligo Support International or chat with others online through the Vitiligo Friends community.

Michele Green, MD, a New York City–based dermatologist, agrees. “Seeking counseling can help reassure you that you are not alone,” she says. Talking to a dermatologist with experience in psychotherapy is ideal, but a psychologist or other mental health professional can definitely help, too. (10)

He or she might suggest cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, or acceptance and commitment therapy, all of which have been shown to help patients with vitiligo increase their confidence and self-esteem. (11)

Caring for Your Skin

In addition to medications and other treatments your doctor might prescribe to help you manage and stop the spread of the physical symptoms of vitiligo, it’s also important to know that certain lifestyle habits can help make it less noticeable, such as:

  • Wearing sunscreen and avoiding tanning beds, as ultraviolet (UV) light can set off a vitiligo reaction. (1) Look for broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. (12)
  • Protecting your skin with clothing You can increase the SPF of clothing by washing your clothes with a UV-protectant treatment. (12)
  • Applying a self-tanner to your skin can add color safely. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests choosing one with dihydroxyacetone, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says is the ingredient responsible for darkening the skin. (12,13)
  • Avoiding tattoos They sometimes can trigger another vitiligo outbreak within two weeks. (11)
  • Limiting exposure to hair dye and bleach These contain chemicals called phenols, which can trigger vitiligo to start or spread. Choose natural dyes instead. (9)

It’s important to talk to your doctor if you have vitiligo. You’ll want to mention any other symptoms you’ve been experiencing, including any linked to depression or anxiety, so he or she can help diagnose any problems or complications you do experience and connect you to the resources you need.

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