The cause of vitiligo is not fully known, but there are several theories. One theory of some substance is that people with vitiligo develop antibodies that, instead of protecting them, turn upon them and destroy their own melanocytes, the special cells that produce the pigment melanin that colors their skin.
Another theory is that the melanocytes somehow attack and destroy themselves. Finally, some people with vitiligo have reported that a single event such as a severe sunburn or an episode of emotional distress seem to have triggered their vitiligo. Events of this nature, however, have not been scientifically proven to cause vitiligo and may simply be coincidences.
Are there a lot of people with vitiligo?
About 1 to 2% of people in the world, or 40 to 50 million people, have vitiligo. In the United States alone, 2 to 5 million people have the disorder.
Ninety-five percent of people who have vitiligo develop it before their 40th birthday. The disorder affects all races and both sexes equally.
Vitiligo may be hereditary and run in families. Children whose parents have the disorder are more likely to develop vitiligo. However, most children will not get vitiligo even if a parent has it, and most people with vitiligo do not have a family history of the disorder.
There are a sizable number of inherited disorders associated with vitiligo. To illustrate, they include: albinism of the ocular type, autoimmune polyendocrinopathy syndrome, congenital deafness with vitiligo and achalasia, dyschromatosis symmetrica hereditaria, ermine phenotype, familial histiocyctic reticulosis, kabuki syndrome, Letterer-Siwe disease, progressive hemifacial atrophy, progressive vitiligo with mental retardation and urethral duplication, Schmidt syndrome, and the syndrome of spastic paraparesis, vitiligo, premature graying and characteristic facies.
The abundance of genetic diseases associated with vitiligo clearly reflects the fact that there are a number of genes which normally govern the development and wellbeing of the melanocyte.