It is estimated that about 2% of children below the age of 20 years have vitiligo skin disorder. Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease caused by absence or inability of melanocytes. This results in milky or white skin patches. Melanocytes make melanin. This is the substance that gives color to the skin, eyes and hair. Among other things, melanin protects from UV radiation. Vitiligo patients are therefore particularly predisposed to severe sunburns.
Vitiligo in children doesn’t cause any major health problems. In fact, more damage is done psychologically than physically. Focal vitiligo is the more common type than other types of vitiligo in children and babies.
There is no known cure for vitiligo. Treatment options are available to manage the condition by evening skin tone and restoring skin color. Since vitiligo is a consequent disease, a therapeutic treatment approach is usually adopted. This requires professional help.
What causes vitiligo in children?
The widely accepted theory is that vitiligo is an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases occur when immune cells mistakenly attack healthy cells, melanocytes in this case.
Genetic predisposition is also thought to play a big role in development of vitiligo in toddlers and children. It is for this reason that vitiligo patients may also be diagnosed with diseases such as Hashimoto’s disease, diabetes type 1, and alopecia. Being born of parents diagnosed with above named diseases is also a risk factor.
Vitiligo cycles are sometimes triggered by stressful events. For example, vitiligo in toddlers can develop after a complicated delivery or surgical operations. Sunburns and cuts may also trigger the disease, especially when severe.
Currently, the exact cause of vitiligo remains unknown. Some experts also suggest that vitiligo cycles can be triggered by a virus. Other possible causes include illnesses of the urinary system, nervous system disorders and some vitamin deficiency.
Babies or children with vitiligo do not pass it to others or get it from their parents during direct skin to skin contact. It, however, often shows a tendency to spread to adjacent areas and form larger white patches.
Types, Signs and symptoms of vitiligo in kids
Signs and symptoms:
Vitiligo baby cases are not as common as in children. Most kids are affected after their third birthday. It often starts with a spot, about 2-5mm in diameter. There usually are no clearly marked boundaries as to where the spot reaches. If other spots have formed nearby, they may spread and join to form larger patches.
It is not uncommon for vitiligo patches to appear pinkish at the boundaries. See vitiligo pictures for illustrations. This is caused by the presence of blood vessels. Although vitiligo doesn’t cause skin dryness or scaling, affected areas may be slightly inflamed and occasionally become itchy. These symptoms are however mild.
Vitiligo symptoms may be accompanied by signs of one of the autoimmune diseases named earlier. Diabetes is, for example, characterized by the frequent urge to urinate and being thirsty. Signs of thyroid disease include fatigue, sluggishness and being more sensitive to cold. Symptoms of alopecia include patchy hair loss on scalp and eyebrows.
Vitiligo is divided into two categories: non-segmental and segmental vitiligo. Segmental vitiligo is the rarer type but fairly common in kids. It is presents as spots on a certain body part. Non-segmental accounts for most vitiligo cases even in children. Here, patients develop symptoms on body parts that mirror one another. Vitiligo in kids can also be focal. This presents as a few spots on a localized body area.
Body parts exposed to sun are mostly affected. Regardless, vitiligo can show up on any part of the skin, in the eyes or inside the mouth. Commonly affected areas include:
- Skin around eyes
- Upper side of hands
- Genital region
Hair roots can also be affected. In such case, vitiligo will present as immature whitening or graying of hair. Sex, ethnicity, and color are not considered risk factors. While vitiligo may be more noticeable in dark skinned kids, it doesn’t indicate severity.
How fast does vitiligo spread? In some kids, only a few spots appear and stop at that. In others, spots appear, gradually increase in size and become patches within a short period of time. It can take years for this process to complete in some cases.
Diagnosis for vitiligo in kids
How is vitiligo in kids diagnosed? In most cases, a physical examination is all that is required. Special lighting with a Woods lamp may be used especially for light skinned kids. The doctor will need to know more about the kid’s medical history, especially regarding previous diagnoses with autoimmune diseases. The doctor should also be informed of any cases of autoimmune disorders in the family and recent cases of trauma such as sunburns.
Thyroid disorders or diabetes often require blood tests. Rarely, a small sample tissue of affected skin will be taken to be examined in the lab. This helps rule out other possible causes of skin color loss such as fungal infections.
How is vitiligo in kids treated?
Although not dangerous, vitiligo is among the harder diseases to get rid of. There in fact is no known cure for the disease. Below are commonly used options:
Corticosteroids for vitiligo come in the form of creams to be applied directly. When treatment is started early, much of lost skin color may be restored. There are other forms of creams that may have a similar effect but corticosteroids are more commonly used. A doctor should be consulted before using these medications in kids. This is because they also bring side effects such as skin thinning.
In this case, either lasers or light boxes are used. Lasers are effective when only small areas are involved. Light boxes are more ideal for widespread vitiligo. The idea is to promote skin rejuvenation with light. Restored skin color may disappear after few years.
PUVA therapy is a combination of psoralen and UVA light. Psoralen is a substance derived from plants and used to restore skin color. It can be taken by mouth or applied directly. Once given, UVA light is controllably shone on the affected areas. This turns the skin pink, which then gradually turns into normal skin color. Psoralen is harmful when exposed to eyes.
Skin grafting involves taking healthy skin from elsewhere in the body and using it to cover vitiligo-affected areas. This treatment is very effective. The problem is that scarring, cobblestone-like skin and failure to work are all possible outcomes.
Here, pigment is implanted into affected areas. The process is somehow similar getting a tattoo. Its main drawback is that it can be stressful enough to trigger other vitiligo cycles.
This is rarely considered for kids. When vitiligo has affected more than 50% of the body, one option is to remove pigment from unaffected areas so that they match with the white areas. The whole process is fairly slow. It can take up to 4 years.
Home treatments and prevention
Use of sunscreens:
Sunscreens help prevent from getting severe sunburns. Sunburns are not only agonizing but can also cause skin cancer. With melanin absent in some areas, sun poisoning is very likely without sunscreen. Sunscreen requires daily application and in some cases more than once a day. For example, it wears out faster on face than on arms.
The goal of cosmetics in managing vitiligo is not to add skin color or even skin tone. It is to conceal the white parts. It may take time before you come up with the right makeup to cover vitiligo. A doctor can help in this case.
Herbs and vitamins:
Ginkgo biloba has been said to be effective in restoring skin color in vitiligo patients. Enough scientific data is not available to explain and support this claim. The so-called vitamins for vitiligo may encourage normal skin healing and in the process restore skin tone. Like other unofficial treatment methods, check with your doctor before using home treatments to cure vitiligo.
Vitiligo doesn’t lead to serious health complications even when left untreated. The much that may happen is widespread skin color loss. This particularly predisposes patients to sunburns.
The main, often unseen vitiligo complication is emotional upset and distress. Kids are yet to understand why some things may happen to them and not to everyone else. In the case of vitiligo, this feeling can be very distressing. Parents have the responsibility of supporting their kids by making them understand that they are just like everyone else. This can be achieved by finding a doctor who knows a lot about vitiligo, researching about the condition yourself and seeking available treatments.
Inspiration can be sourced from cases such as Winnie Harlow vitiligo. She is a celebrity, and a model for that matter, despite the fact that her facial skin is affected by vitiligo. In fact, there are a lot more famous and successful people who have been diagnosed with vitiligo.
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