Harvard Women's Health Watch

By the way, doctor: What can I do about vitiligo?

Q. I have white skin patches on both hands. My doctor says it's vitiligo. What causes this, and how can I treat it?

A. Vitiligo is a common condition in which the skin loses melanin, the substance that determines the color of the skin, hair, and eyes. When the cells that produce melanin die in a given patch of skin or can no longer make the pigment, that area becomes white. Vitiligo most often appears on sun-exposed areas, such as the face, arms, backs of the hands, knees, and feet. It can also develop around orifices, including the mouth, eyes, nose, and anus. Some people lose color in the mucous membranes of the mouth or the retina of the eye.

Vitiligo usually begins as small white irregular patches that grow very slowly — over months to years. Pigment may occasionally return, but usually the white patches continue to spread, and if left untreated, may involve extensive areas of the skin. Vitiligo doesn't itch or hurt, and most people with the condition are generally healthy, but they may be upset about the appearance of their skin.

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