The main goal of treating vitiligo is to improve appearance. Therapy for vitiligo takes a long time—it usually must be continued for 6 to 18 months. The choice of therapy depends on the number of white patches; their location, sizes, and how widespread they are; and what you prefer in terms of treatment. Each patient responds differently to therapy, and a particular treatment may not work for everyone. Current treatment options for vitiligo include medication, surgery, and adjunctive therapies (used along with surgical or medical treatments).
A number of medical therapies, most of which are applied topically, can reduce the appearance of vitiligo. These are some of the most commonly used:
- Topical steroid therapy. Steroid creams may be helpful in repigmenting (returning the color to) white patches, particularly if they are applied in the initial stages of the disease. Corticosteroids are a group of drugs similar to hormones such as cortisone, which are produced by the adrenal glands. Doctors often prescribe a mild topical corticosteroid cream for children under 10 years old and a stronger one for adults. You must apply the cream to the white patches on the skin for at least 3 months before seeing any results. Corticosteriod creams are the simplest and safest treatment for vitiligo, but are not as effective as psoralen photochemotherapy (see below). Yet, as with any medication, these creams can cause side effects. For this reason, the doctor will monitor you closely for skin shrinkage and skin striae (streaks or lines on the skin). These side effects are more likely to occur in areas where the skin is thin, such as on the face and armpits, or in the genital region. They can be minimized by using weaker formulations of steroid creams in these areas.
- Psoralen photochemotherapy. Also known as psoralen and ultraviolet A (PUVA) therapy, this is probably the most effective treatment for vitiligo available in the United States. The goal of PUVA therapy is to repigment the white patches. However, it is time-consuming, and care must be taken to avoid side effects, which can sometimes be severe. Psoralen is a drug that contains chemicals that react with ultraviolet light to cause darkening of the skin. The treatment involves taking psoralen by mouth (orally) or applying it to the skin (topically). This is followed by carefully timed exposure to sunlight or to ultraviolet A (UVA) light that comes from a special lamp. Typically, you will receive treatments in your doctor’s office so you can be carefully watched for any side effects. You must minimize exposure to sunlight at other times. Both oral and topical psoralen photochemotherapy are described below.
- Topical psoralen photochemotherapy. Often used for people with a small number of depigmented patches affecting a limited part of the body and for children age 2 and older who have localized patches of vitiligo. Treatments are done in a doctor’s office under artificial UVA light once or twice a week. The doctor or nurse applies a thin coat of psoralen to your white patches about 30 minutes before exposing you to enough UVA light to turn the affected area pink. The doctor usually increases the dose of UVA light slowly over many weeks. Eventually, the pink areas fade and a more normal skin color appears. After each treatment, you wash your skin with soap and water and apply a sunscreen before leaving the doctor’s office.There are two major potential side effects of topical PUVA therapy: (1) severe sunburn and blistering and (2) too much repigmentation or darkening (hyperpigmentation) of the treated patches or the normal skin surrounding the vitiligo. You can minimize your chances of sunburn if you avoid exposure to direct sunlight after each treatment. Usually, hyperpigmentation is a temporary problem that eventually disappears when treatment is stopped.
- Oral psoralen photochemotherapy. Used for people with extensive vitiligo (affecting more than 20 percent of the body) or for people who do not respond to topical PUVA therapy. Oral psoralen is not recommended for children under 10 years of age because it increases the risk of damage to the eyes caused by conditions such as cataracts. For oral PUVA therapy, you take a prescribed dose of psoralen by mouth about 2 hours before exposure to artificial UVA light or sunlight. If artificial light is used, the doctor adjusts the dose of light until the skin in the areas being treated becomes pink. Treatments are usually given two or three times a week, but never 2 days in a row.For patients who cannot go to a facility to receive PUVA therapy, the doctor may prescribe psoralen that can be used with natural sunlight exposure. The doctor will give you careful instructions on carrying out treatment at home and monitor you during scheduled checkups.Known side effects of oral psoralen include sunburn, nausea and vomiting, itching, abnormal hair growth, and hyperpigmentation. Oral psoralen photochemotherapy may also increase the risk of skin cancer, although the risk is minimal at doses used for vitiligo. If you are undergoing oral PUVA therapy, you should apply sunscreen and avoid direct sunlight for 24 to 48 hours after each treatment to avoid sunburn and reduce the risk of skin cancer. To avoid eye damage, particularly cataracts, you should also wear protective UVA sunglasses for 18 to 24 hours after each treatment.
- Depigmentation. This treatment involves fading the rest of the skin on the body to match the areas that are already white. For people who have vitiligo on more than 50 percent of their bodies, depigmentation may be the best treatment option. Patients apply the drug monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone (monobenzone) twice a day to pigmented areas until they match the already-depigmented areas. You must avoid direct skin-to-skin contact with other people for at least 2 hours after applying the drug, as transfer of the drug may cause depigmentation of the other person’s skin. The major side effect of depigmentation therapy is inflammation (redness and swelling) of the skin. You may experience itching or dry skin. Depigmentation tends to be permanent and is not easily reversed. In addition, a person who undergoes depigmentation will always be unusually sensitive to sunlight.
All surgical therapies must be considered only after proper medical therapy is provided. Surgical techniques are time consuming and expensive and usually not paid for by insurance carriers. They are appropriate only for carefully selected patients who have vitiligo that has been stable for at least 3 years:
- Autologous skin grafts. The doctor removes skin from one area of your body and attaches it to another area. This type of skin grafting is sometimes used for patients with small patches of vitiligo. The doctor removes sections of the normal, pigmented skin (donor sites) and places them on the depigmented areas (recipient sites). There are several possible complications of autologous skin grafting. Infections may occur at the donor or recipient sites. The recipient and donor sites may develop scarring, a cobblestone appearance, or a spotty pigmentation, or may fail to repigment at all. Treatment with grafting takes time and is costly, and many people find it neither acceptable nor affordable.
- Skin grafts using blisters. In this procedure, the doctor creates blisters on your pigmented skin by using heat, suction, or freezing cold. The tops of the blisters are then cut out and transplanted to a depigmented skin area. The risks of blister grafting include scarring and lack of repigmentation. However, there is less risk of scarring with this procedure than with other types of grafting.
- Micropigmentation (tattooing). This procedure involves implanting pigment into the skin with a special surgical instrument. It works best for the lip area, particularly in people with dark skin. However, it is difficult for the doctor to match perfectly the color of the skin of the surrounding area.The tattooed area will not change in color when exposed to sun, although the surrounding normal skin will. So even if the tattooed area matches the surrounding skin perfectly at first, it may not later on. Tattooing tends to fade over time. In addition, tattooing of the lips may lead to episodes of blister outbreaks caused by the herpes simplex virus.
- Autologous melanocyte transplants. In this procedure, the doctor takes a sample of your normal pigmented skin and places it in a laboratory dish containing a special cell-culture solution to grow melanocytes. When the melanocytes in the culture solution have multiplied, the doctor transplants them to your depigmented skin patches. This procedure is currently experimental and is impractical for the routine care of people with vitiligo. It is also very expensive, and its side effects are not known.
- Sunscreens. People who have vitiligo, particularly those with fair skin, should minimize sun exposure and use a sunscreen that provides protection from both UVA and ultraviolet B light. Tanning makes the contrast between normal and depigmented skin more noticeable. Sunscreen helps protect the skin from sunburn and long-term damage.
- Cosmetics. Some patients with vitiligo cover depigmented patches with stains, makeup, or self-tanning lotions. These cosmetic products can be particularly effective for people whose vitiligo is limited to exposed areas of the body. Many cosmetic companies offer makeup or dyes that you may find helpful for covering up depigmented patches. Self-tanning lotions have an advantage over makeup in that the color will last for several days and will not come off with washing.
- Counseling and support groups. Many people with vitiligo find it helpful to get counseling from a mental health professional. People often find they can talk to their counselor about issues that are difficult to discuss with anyone else. A mental health counselor can also offer support and help in coping with vitiligo. In addition, it may be helpful to attend a vitiligo support group.