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Vitiligo is a condition in which patches of skin lose or do not produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. The condition itself does not pose immediate health problems, but affected skin that is repeatedly exposed to sunlight can burn easily and lead to cancer in some people. There are many different vitiligo treatments available, and procedures depend on the location and severity of symptoms. Dermatologists can treat localized vitiligo with ultraviolet (UV) light, lasers, steroids, and topical creams. For widespread problems, doctors may decide to conduct surgery or remove the remaining melanin from healthy skin to even out color.
Mild pigmentation loss on the face, hands, feet, and elbows does not normally need to be treated. People who are concerned about aesthetics can cover up light patches of skin with cosmetic products. Dermatologists can help their patients decide which products are the most appropriate for their specific conditions. In addition to makeup, it usually is important for people with mild vitiligo to wear sunscreen any time they are outdoors to protect against burns and worsening of pigmentation loss.
Some people choose to undergo vitiligo treatments to restore pigmentation in their skin. Dermatologists can administer UV light therapy two to three times a week for several months to gradually return pigment to affected patches. A fiber optic UV lamp is used to focus UV radiation on specific areas of skin. Over time, UV treatments are usually effective at darkening skin to nearly its normal coloration.
Doctors can also use specialized lasers that emit very concentrated beams of UV light. Laser therapy is considered safer and more effective than normal UV treatments, though procedures can be extremely expensive and must be carried out by highly trained dermatologists. Patients who are able to undergo laser therapy need fewer and less-frequent vitiligo treatments than those who receive standard UV therapy. To prevent permanent skin damage, individuals are usually instructed to avoid direct exposure to sunlight before and after both types of vitiligo treatments.
Patients with large patches of white skin on their faces or necks may not be eligible for light and laser vitiligo treatments. Instead, dermatologists can prescribe topical ointments that help darken damaged areas and stop the spread of vitiligo. High strength ointments that contain vitamin D and immunosuppressive medications can be applied daily for several weeks or months, according to a dermatologist's recommendations. Topical steroid creams and oral medications containing prednisone are sometimes prescribed, but doctors usually avoid such remedies because steroids can cause more long-term harm than good to the body.
Surgical procedures are rarely performed for vitiligo treatment. If large areas of the face or neck are affected, a surgeon can remove healthy skin from another part of the body and graft it into place. A person whose body has been severely affected by vitiligo may need to undergo a depigmentation procedure. It is usually seen as a last-resort, permanent method of evening out skin coloration, and only performed when the patient fully understands the implications of the procedure. A high-strength cream is applied to healthy skin daily for several months to completely remove melanin, leaving the entire body an even, white color.
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