Poliosis is a condition that causes a white patch or patches to appear in a person's hair.

Glancing into the bathroom mirror and noticing streaks of white hair that were not there before can be a worrying experience. As with many other things in life, poliosis is less scary when it is understood.

Here is a look at just what poliosis is, what it means for the person with it, and how they can deal with it.

Poliosis causing a white patch of hair. Image credit: Klaus D. Peter, Gummersbach, Germany, (2011, November 5)Share on Pinterest
Poliosis causes white patches of hair.
Image credit: Klaus D. Peter, Gummersbach, Germany, (2011, November 5)

The white hair caused by poliosis is due to a lack of a pigment called melanin in the hair follicles.

The condition is usually associated with the hair of the head. It can affect any hairy area of the body, however, including the eyebrows and eyelashes.

While poliosis itself is not a harmful condition, it is associated with various other medical issues. Some of these are harmful, and some are not.

For this reason, it is a good idea for someone to get an opinion from a doctor when signs of poliosis first show up.

Poliosis is easy to spot. It shows up as a white or grey patch or patches in any area of the body that has hair. It will usually be easiest to notice when it affects the head hair, but it can occur anywhere else as well.

Poliosis may appear suddenly at any age. It is also possible for someone to have it from birth.

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Poliosis may occur in conditions such as vitiligo, which causes white patches of skin.
Image credit: DermNet New Zealand

A person can develop poliosis because of genetic conditions, such as the following:

  • tuberous sclerosis
  • piebaldism
  • Waardenburg syndrome

People can also develop poliosis due to the use of certain medications or developing other conditions, such as inflammatory disorders.

Medications that could trigger poliosis include the antibiotic chloramphenicol and the anticancer drug cetuximab.

There are also many well-documented historical reports of people suddenly experiencing poliosis due to extreme psychological stress, pain, or disease. A 2013 review of many of these reports was published in the International Journal of Trichology.

Poliosis itself is not harmful. It can, however, appear alongside other conditions that pose a health risk. For that reason, poliosis can be an early warning sign of more serious health issues.

Some of the harmful health conditions that poliosis might appear alongside include the following:

Skin conditions

Melanoma is a skin cancer arising from the cells that provide color to the skin. In certain cases of melanoma, poliosis can be the first sign of this cancer.

Eye conditions

Research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, dating back to 1981, found that poliosis was more common in people experiencing the eye condition uveitis.

Uveitis involves an inflammation of the eye. If not treated, it might lead to other eye conditions, including glaucoma and cataracts.

Poliosis can, therefore, be a helpful warning sign for someone to seek treatment before an eye conditions develop.

Inflammatory diseases

Poliosis is known to occur as a late side effect of Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada disease (VKH).

VKH is an inflammatory disorder that affects multiple systems throughout the body. These range from the eyes and ears to the skin and central nervous system. VKH is more common in dark-skinned people, particularly Asians.

As a 2012 review notes, there is a body of scientific evidence to suggest that chronic inflammation may be a significant factor in the development of many common diseases.

As poliosis is known to be a side effect of at least one chronic inflammatory disorder, its appearance could serve as a warning sign for any number of related conditions.

Thyroid disorders

A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Dermatology found that children with vitiligo, a related condition to poliosis that affects the skin, were more likely to experience thyroid and autoimmune disorders.

In the study, 42 percent of the children with vitiligo reported having at least one relative with a thyroid or autoimmune condition or both.

Thyroid conditions can have many negative effects if untreated. These include:

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Poliosis may be treated. However, treatment is usually intensive.
Image credit: DermNet New Zealand

There seem to be some medical treatments that can reverse poliosis.

One 2013 study published in Dermatological Surgery found that a skin grafting treatment, followed by light-therapy for 4–11 months, managed to reverse poliosis combined with vitiligo.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology tested a treatment on a 37-year-old man with poliosis and vitiligo, affecting his left eyebrow.

The treatment involved therapy sessions with a laser, as well as daily applications of an ointment, and daily oral medication. At 6 months after the start of the treatment, and after 44 therapy sessions with the laser, 75 percent of the color had returned to the eyebrow.

These treatments are quite intensive and time-consuming.

Most people with poliosis might choose not to look for medical treatments, but instead let the hair remain as it is, or else dye it, as an easy way of covering up the white.

Poliosis itself is simply a harmless lack of pigment in hair follicles, which causes them to become white or gray. The condition can exist from birth, or it can appear without warning at any age.

While there is no need to be alarmed if poliosis appears, it is best to see a doctor if it does. While poliosis is not harmful, it can be a sign of various conditions that are.

The harmful conditions that can trigger poliosis include melanoma skin cancer, thyroid disorders, and inflammatory conditions, among others.

Poliosis can also be triggered by some medications and even by psychological stress.

Medical treatments do exist that appear to reverse poliosis, but these are often time-consuming, tiring, and expensive.

After seeing a doctor to make sure there is no underlying condition, a person with poliosis might find it easiest just to let their hair remain as it is, or else to dye it, rather than to seek other treatment.