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People with vitiligo may have a higher risk for developing some other health conditions. Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition – a condition caused by the immune system malfunctioning and attacking a person’s own tissues.1 Approximately 15 to 25 percent of people with vitiligo have another autoimmune condition.2 Those with vitiligo are also more likely to have a family member with an autoimmune disease.1 For these reasons, many researchers believe that inherited genes are important risk factors for developing vitiligo in some people.1
When someone has more than one disease occurring at the same time, the conditions are known as comorbidities. Learning about the most common comorbidities of vitiligo may help you recognize potential symptoms and know when to talk to your doctor.
Autoimmune thyroid diseases
Autoimmune thyroid diseases are among the most common autoimmune diseases found in people with vitiligo.3 The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the front of the neck.4 The thyroid releases hormones that help regulate your mood, digestive function, muscle control, bone density, and heart function.4
Types of autoimmune thyroid disease that can occur with vitiligo include:
Autoimmune thyroid diseases can cause both hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone) and hypothyroidism (too little thyroid hormone), which have opposite symptoms. If you notice any of the following, discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism:4
Symptoms of hypothyroidism:4
Skin, muscle, and joint conditions
Vitiligo is associated with several autoimmune conditions that primarily attack the skin, muscles, joints, and connective tissue.
Sjögren’s (pronounced SHOW-grins) syndrome is an autoimmune condition that can affect the whole body.5 Sjögren’s often causes chronic dryness of the eyes, nose, mouth, and skin.5 Sjögren’s can also lead to eye discomfort and infections, mouth sores and dental issues, difficulty swallowing, and lung problems.5
Systemic lupus erythematosus, commonly known as lupus, can cause a wide variety of symptoms and affects each person differently. Some of the most common symptoms of lupus are:6
Learn more about lupus.
Symptoms of psoriasis include red, scaly patches of skin that can itch, burn, or sting.7 Psoriasis can appear anywhere on the body, but the elbows, knees, and scalp are some of the most common areas affected.7
Learn more about psoriasis.
Rheumatoid arthritis causes pain, swelling, tenderness, and stiffness in the joints. Joint pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis typically:8
With rheumatoid arthritis, joints are likely to be stiff in the morning.8 Learn more about rheumatoid arthritis.
In myasthenia gravis, autoimmune attacks disrupt the connection between the nerves and muscles, resulting in muscle weakness.9 Myasthenia gravis may affect the muscles that control the eyes and eyelids first.9 Common symptoms of myasthenia gravis include:9
Symptoms may come and go and shift from mild to severe repeatedly.9
Autoimmune diseases of the digestive system can also affect those with vitiligo at higher rates than the general population. Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, type 1 diabetes, and pernicious anemia are all more likely to develop in those with vitiligo.1
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis1
Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are known collectively as inflammatory bowel disease or IBD. Both Crohn’s and colitis can cause persistent diarrhea, bloody stool, urgent need to defecate, and abdominal pain and cramps.10,11
Learn more about Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Type 1 diabetes1
In type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin.12 Without insulin, your blood glucose (also called blood sugar) levels rise.12 People with type 1 diabetes require insulin via daily injections or through an insulin pump to stay alive.12 Type 1 diabetes usually develops in children and young adults, but it can develop at any age.12
Symptoms of type 1 diabetes include:12
People with pernicious anemia lack a protein called intrinsic factor that is made in the stomach.13 Intrinsic factor allows the body to absorb vitamin B12, which is necessary to make red blood cells.13 People with pernicious anemia cannot make enough red blood cells because they cannot absorb vitamin B12.13
Symptoms of pernicious anemia include:13
Talking to your doctor
If you or a loved one have vitiligo and you are concerned about a comorbid condition, talk to your doctor. You might consider keeping track of any worrying symptoms over time and asking close relatives whether they have been diagnosed with any autoimmune conditions. Gathering this information in advance may help your doctor better assess your risk for a comorbid condition, since taking personal and family health history is often an important step in diagnosis.
If I have vitiligo, am I more likely to get skin cancer?
Researchers are finding more and more evidence that there is not an increased risk for melanoma or other skin cancers in people with vitiligo.14 Evidence supports a theory that the same genes that lead to some people developing vitiligo may provide some protection from developing skin cancer.14 When melanoma and other skin cancers do develop in people with vitiligo, they tend to develop in unaffected skin areas, not in the white patches caused by vitiligo.14
However, it is still important for people with vitiligo to protect their skin from the sun to avoid painful sunburns.14 People with vitiligo who undergo prolonged courses of phototherapy (read more about treatments for vitiligo) should also undergo regular skin checks by their dermatologist to look for skin damage and cancer.14
In partnership with the Global Vitiligo Foundation