What to Know About Vitiligo in Children

Vitiligo is a condition that often appears as patchy light spots on the skin.

It can happen at any age but may begin in childhood and progress over time.

Here’s what to know about vitiligo in children as well as its causes, types, symptoms, and treatment options.

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What Is Vitiligo? Causes and Types

Vitiligo is a chronic condition. It most often causes loss of natural color in patches of skin throughout the body. Depigmentation is a term for this loss of color.

Skin cells that make pigment (your melanocytes) can become damaged or destroyed. Areas of skin can turn a cloudy white color when this happens.

These patches of cloudy white skin can appear anywhere on the body. They most often appear on the hands, feet, arms, legs, and face.

They may also affect the groin region and scalp, can also be affected. This can cause hair to get grayer or whiter.

Researchers believe vitiligo is an autoimmune disease. This means the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys the skin cells responsible for skin color. Scientists are still studying the roles genetics, family history, and environment play in making it happen or get worse.

Those with a family history of the disorder may prove more likely to get vitiligo. This is also true of those who have a preexisting autoimmune disease. Examples of autoimmune diseases include Addison’s disease, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Vitiligo is mostly a cosmetic condition. It isn’t typically painful. But it can cause skin to become more sensitive to sunlight and sun damage.

This can create a need for special care. Vitiligo may also lead to certain eye conditions that usually don’t affect vision. It can also lead to a higher likelihood of developing other autoimmune conditions.

Vitiligo can develop at any age. The condition often becomes apparent in childhood and progresses over time. That’s according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

How much vitiligo spreads over the skin varies from person to person. Affected areas may change over time. But larger patches tend to stay in the same place for years.

Board-certified dermatologists classify vitiligo based on the size, frequency, and placement of its macules or patches. (Macules are spots smaller than 1 centimeter wide. Patches are spots larger than 1 centimeter wide)

Types of vitiligo in children may include:

  • Focal vitiligo: A rare type of vitiligo. A handful of spots appear in a centralized location and often don’t spread.
  • Generalized vitiligo: The most common type of vitiligo. Characterized by spots appearing throughout the body, often symmetrically on both sides.
  • Segmental vitiligo: Spots appear on only one side of the body.
  • Universal: Another rare type of vitiligo that leads to widespread pigment loss in more than 80% of the skin.

Symptoms of Vitiligo

Symptoms of vitiligo vary, but the most common are:

  • Patchy skin pigment loss that usually first appears on the hands, face, and around openings like the mouth or eyes.
  • Premature loss of pigment or graying/whitening of the hair, including eyebrows, eyelashes, facial hair, and body hair.
  • Pigment loss in the mucous membranes lining the inside of the mouth or nose.

Vitiligo Diagnosis and Treatments

There’s no cure for vitiligo. But treatment can help stop progression and reverse its effects. It can also even out skin tone.

Treatment may prove unnecessary for many because the condition is primarily cosmetic.

Board-certified dermatologists and counselors are available to help those who wish to address the physical symptoms of living with conditions like vitiligo. They can also help with the emotional challenges of having a visible condition.

Often, a healthcare provider can diagnose vitiligo just by looking at it. They may also perform a Wood’s lamp examination to differentiate vitiligo from other skin conditions. A provider will scan an ultraviolet light onto the skin during this exam to give a diagnosis.

They may also ask about family and medical history and perform other tests as needed. They may recommend blood tests for those they diagnose with vitiligo.

A dermatologist will then help build an individualized treatment plan that considers the person’s age, health status, and goals.

Treatments for vitiligo include:

  • Counseling: People living with vitiligo can experience low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression related to the condition’s physical symptoms. Children and adolescents are no exception. Those struggling may benefit from talking with a mental health professional. They can also meet with a support group. This way, they can work through self-image concerns and work out ways to address vitiligo in everyday social situations.
  • Depigmentation: This is a last resort for people who have lost most of their natural skin color and don’t want to continue with other treatment methods. It involves a provider-prescribed cream that gradually removes the remaining color from a person’s skin. This process can take up to four years.
  • Light therapy: Also called phototherapy, a provider may recommend a form of light therapy to return some color to the skin.
  • Makeup or dyes: Some people with vitiligo choose to mask their symptoms with camouflage makeup, skin dyes, or self-tanning creams.
  • Medications: A provider may prescribe corticosteroid or immunosuppressive creams or ointments to help restore lost skin color or even skin tone.
  • Surgery: In some cases, surgical procedures such as skin grafting, blister grafting, or cell transplants may cover or re-pigment affected areas of the body.

UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s Division of Pediatric Dermatology serves children patients from birth through 26 years of age. It’s the only dedicated pediatric dermatology office of its kind in western Pennsylvania. Providers treat and manage disorders of the skin, hair, and nails. Visit CHP.edu/Our-Services/Dermatology for more information.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.