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Vitiligo is a distinct dermatological condition characterized by the patchy loss of skin pigmentation, resulting in irregular white patches that may vary in size and location. This intriguing phenomenon isn’t merely skin-deep. It also affects the pigment of the hair growing in these regions, causing it to turn white.

Vitiligo typically makes its first appearance in individuals in their mid-twenties, though it doesn’t discriminate by age and can manifest at any stage of life.

Related: Vitamin D Receptor Polymorphisms and Vitiligo Susceptibility

How Vitiligo Manifests Over Time

The evolution of this condition is as unique as the individuals it affects. Some people may notice a progressive loss of skin color over time, leading to larger depigmented areas. Others might observe stability in their condition or even an improvement in some cases.

This article will delve deeper into the genetic aspects of Vitiligo. Is this condition passed down through generations? Or is it a random occurrence with no familial links? Join us as we explore the genetic underpinnings of this enigmatic skin condition and shed light on the complex interplay between our genes and our skin’s pigmentation.

A man with Vitiligo putting on a bucket hat

Forms of Vitiligo

Researchers have identified several forms of Vitiligo. Generalized Vitiligo (also called nonsegmental Vitiligo) is the most common form that involves loss of pigment in sizable patches of skin all over the body. This usually happens on the face, neck, scalp, and around body openings like the mouth and genitals. 

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Sometimes the color is lost in membranes, such as the lips. We also often see a loss of pigmentation in areas prone to rubbing, impact, or other injuries, like the hands, arms, and areas where bones are close to the skin’s surface (bony prominences). Another type of this condition is known as Vitiligo. It involves patches of skin that appear on one side of the body in a specific area. This variant affects 10 percent of individuals with this condition. 

Vitiligo Is an Autoimmune Disorder

Vitiligo is commonly recognized as a condition. Autoimmune conditions occur when the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks its tissues and organs. In individuals with Vitiligo, it seems that the immune system specifically targets the melanocytes responsible for skin pigmentation. 

15 to 25 percent of Vitiligo patients also experience at least one other autoimmune disorder, such as thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, psoriasis, Addison’s disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis.

Vitiligo does not affect general health or interfere with physical functioning without other autoimmune conditions. However, concerns about physical appearance and ethnic identity are significant issues for many affected individuals.

Can Vitiligo Be Inherited?

Vitiligo has been observed to have an element. Although it is true that Vitiligo can sometimes run in families. The way it is inherited is quite complex. 

Around one out of every five individuals with Vitiligo has one close family member who is also affected by the condition indicating a possible genetic predisposition. However, not all individuals with a family history of Vitiligo end up developing the condition hinting at the influence of environmental factors.

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The genetics of Vitiligo are intricate, with more than 30 genes identified as potentially contributing to the risk. These genes play roles in processes such as immune system functioning, melanocyte (pigment cell) biology, and cellular stress responses.

It’s important to note that having variations in these genes does not automatically mean an individual will develop Vitiligo. Rather it increases their susceptibility or likelihood of developing the condition.

The development of Vitiligo in individuals who are genetically prone to it can be triggered by environmental factors, such as sunburn, exposure to specific chemicals, or even emotional stress.

Related: Oxidative Stress and Vitiligo Onset

a close up of a woman with Vitiligo

Causes of Vitiligo

Vitiligo is a complex condition with multifaceted causes. As aforementioned more than 30 genes, presenting in diverse combinations, are associated with an increased risk of developing Vitiligo. Two such pivotal genes are NLRP1 and PTPN22.

The NLRP1 gene provides instructions for creating a protein crucial to the immune system, which regulates inflammation, a critical response to injury or disease involving signaling molecules and white blood cells. The body inhibits this inflammatory response after it has served its purpose to prevent damage to its own cells.

The PTPN22 gene is responsible for producing a protein involved in signaling that controls the activity of T cells. T cells identify foreign substances while defending the body against infection.

Variations in the NLRP1 and PTPN22 genes likely affect the functionality of their respective proteins, making it challenging for the body to manage inflammation and subsequently prevent the immune system from attacking its own tissues.

Other Genes May Play a Role in The Onset of Vitiligo

Further studies suggest that variations in numerous other genes also influence the risk of Vitiligo. Many of these genes are involved in immune system function or melanocyte biology, and each likely contributes a small fraction to the overall vitiligo risk. Certain gene changes linked to an increased risk of Vitiligo have also been associated with a higher risk of other autoimmune conditions.

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Melanocytes Under Stress

The specific triggers that prompt the immune system to attack melanocytes in the skin remain unclear. 

However, the immune system may react abnormally to melanocytes under stress from factors like chemicals or ultraviolet radiation. Moreover, the melanocytes of individuals with Vitiligo may be more susceptible to stress, making them more likely targets for the immune system.

Vitiligo likely results from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, many of which are yet to be identified. Psychological stress, prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation, or contact with certain chemicals or skin-whitening products could trigger Vitiligo in genetically predisposed individuals.

So, Is Vitiligo Genetic?

While Vitiligo has a significant genetic component, it is not exclusively a genetic disorder. It’s best described as a complex trait influenced by a combination of environmental, genetic, and possibly even epigenetic factors. Understanding this intricate interplay is key to developing progressive treatments and, ultimately, a cure for this complex condition.

Are you looking for ways to enjoy life with Vitiligo and take care of your skin? Check out Living Your Best Life With Vitiligo: Tips for Skincare