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Vitiligo and albinism may appear similar, but the two are not one and the same. Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease and skin condition that develops when the body loses melanocytes, which are cells that produce the pigment that gives skin its color (melanin). The result is patches of white skin on different areas of the body. Between 0.5% and 2% of people across the globe have vitiligo.
Albinism is a genetic disorder that develops because the body does not produce enough melanin. This gives skin a light or completely white appearance. Roughly 1 in every 20,000 people have albinism in the world.
Read on to find out more about vitiligo and albinism and the difference between the two conditions.
Vitiligo vs. Albinism
Both vitiligo and albinism develop because of issues with melanin production. The two conditions also have a genetic component when it comes to development. However, there are many differences between the two skin disorders.
For example, in people with albinism, all of their skin is affected from birth, while vitiligo comes on after birth and appears in patches on the skin.
Albinism can also affect the eyes as well as the skin, whereas vitiligo does not. Both conditions can affect the hair, but this is more common in albinism.
What Is Hypopigmentation?
Hypopigmentation is a skin condition that occurs when all the skin or parts of the skin are lighter than normal. People with both vitiligo and albinism suffer from hypopigmentation.
What You Need to Know About Vitiligo
Although vitiligo isn’t well understood, new research surrounding the condition is helping to shed light on the autoimmune disease.
What Are the Symptoms of Vitiligo?
The main symptom of vitiligo is smooth, white patches of skin. Although the patches can develop anywhere on the body, the hands, feet, and face are often the most affected areas. In some cases, the scalp and hair can also lose their pigment and become white.
Although the white patches don’t typically come with other symptoms, the American Academy of Dermatology states that few people feel pain or itchiness in the affected areas.
Can Vitiligo Cause Depression?
Other disorders can develop because of vitiligo, mainly because of the way the spots affect how a person sees themselves. Depression, for example, can develop in as many as 54.5% of people with vitiligo.
What Causes Vitiligo?
The exact cause of vitiligo isn’t clear, however, experts believe that there are certain risk factors associated with the development of the disease. They include:
- Autoimmunity, which is when the immune system mistakes healthy cells for unhealthy ones and begins attacking them
- Genetic mutations, which are improper changes in DNA that can lead to the condition
- Certain types of cancer, including skin cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Overexposure to neurochemicals, which are chemicals in the brain designed to help the mind and body function. When those chemicals leave the brain, they can be toxic to melanocytes.
How Is Vitiligo Treated?
There is no cure for vitiligo, and treatment is only necessary if the patches of skin are causing a person to feel low self-esteem or depressive symptoms.
The treatments available for the condition are designed to stop further loss of melanocytes and slow down the immune response so further damage can’t be done to the cells.
Treatment options include:
- Topical and whole-body immunosuppressing medications to help slow down the immune response
- Phototherapy, which is a form of light therapy that exposes the skin to ultraviolet A (UVA) light
- Surgery, which is done by replacing affected areas of skin with unaffected skin from another part of the body
- Topical corticosteroids, which are anti-inflammatory medications
- Herbal therapy using gingko biloba, an herb that, in early clinical research, has been shown to help bring back skin pigment and stop the white patches from spreading
What If Treatment Doesn't Work?
In the most severe cases and when treatment doesn’t work, people may opt for complete depigmentation. This process removes pigment from all areas of skin so that the rest of the body matches the affected areas.
What You Need to Know About Albinism
Albinism develops when melanocytes do not create enough melanin. This leads to a full loss of pigment across the entire body, hair, and eyes.
What Is Partial Albinism
While albinism is typically known to affect the entire surface area of the body, the hair, and the eyes, there is a form of the condition known as partial albinism that presents differently and only affects some parts of the body.
What Are the Symptoms of Albinism?
The main symptoms of albinism are extremely pale skin, hair, and eyes. However, in people with the condition, other symptoms can be present as well. They include:
- Crossed eyes
- Sensitivity to light known as photophobia
- Involuntary rapid eye movements, an ailment known as nystagmus
- Blindness or impaired vision
- Astigmatism, which is improper curvature of the eye
What Is Ocular Albinism?
In some cases, albinism will primarily affect the eyes. This leads to depigmentation of the iris, the colored part of the eye. It can also cause loss of pigment in the part of the eye that receives light, known as the retina. People with ocular albinism are not often affected on any other part of the body such as the skin or hair.
What Causes Albinism?
Albinism is hereditary and can be passed down to a child if both parents have the condition or have the genes that cause it to develop. The genes that are affected and lead to albinism are ones that play a role in the production of melanin.
How Is Albinism Treated?
There is no cure for albinism and treatment is heavily focused on eye issues that develop with the condition. Treatment for eye issues include:
- Eyeglasses or contact lens
- Vision aids, such as large computer screens and typefaces, magnifying glasses, and software that uses speech-to-type technology
- Sunglasses or tinted glasses to protect the eyes against the sun
- Eye exercises that can help to improve squinting or lazy eye
Is There a Connection Between Albinism and Skin Cancer?
Because the skin of someone with albinism lacks melanin, it cannot protect itself against the harmful rays of the sun and, thus, people with albinism may be more susceptible to developing skin cancer. This is why skin monitoring is commonly done to check for abnormalities that could develop into skin cancer for people with the condition.
How Is Albinism Diagnosed?
Typically, diagnosing albinism involves a physical exam to check for signs of the condition on the skin, hair, and eyes. To confirm a diagnosis, a doctor may perform a genetic test to determine what specific gene mutated and led to the development of the condition. The DNA genetic test is a way to correctly diagnosis which type of albinism a person has.
Vitiligo and albinism may appear similar due to the light or white effect that these conditions have on the skin. The primary difference between the two is that vitiligo is an autoimmune disease that causes white patches on the skin, while albinism is a genetic disorder that causes the skin to appear very light all over the body, except in the case of partial albinism.
A Word From Verywell
Anyone can develop vitiligo or albinism, but there is a genetic and unavoidable component to the disorders. Living with either condition can be difficult to cope with, but there are many resources that can help you love yourself and your unique skin.
If you find it difficult to cope, call your healthcare provider and they can discuss options with you for support, treatment, and tips on how to embrace the skin you’re in.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is there an opposite condition to albinism?
The opposite of albinism is melanism. It is characterized as an excessive production of melanin, which causes the skin or hair to become extremely dark. Although albinism can occur in both humans and animals, only animals can develop melanism.
- Is albinism a skin cancer?
Albinism is not a type of skin cancer. However, because the skin in albinism lacks melanin, it does increase the risk of someone developing skin cancer. This is because melanin acts as a form of protection for the skin when it absorbs the harmful rays of the sun, And with less melanin, there is less protection.
- How do you pronounce vitiligo?
Vitiligo is pronounced as vih-tuh-LIE-go.
- Does vitiligo hurt?
Most people with vitiligo do not experience any symptoms in the white patches of skin. However, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, there have been a few cases that have presented with pain and itchiness.
- Can you stop vitiligo from spreading?
There is no cure for vitiligo, and the spread of the spots cannot be stopped. That being said, treatment may be able to restore pigment to the patches of skin that have lost their color. Treatment may also be able to stop any further loss of pigment, essentially slowing any progression of the disease.