Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition that occurs when a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks pigment cells in their skin. This causes patches of pale or white skin.
Health experts do not know what causes vitiligo exactly, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors likely play a role. Some of these factors may also raise the risk of other autoimmune conditions.
In a 2020 study of 1,487 people with vitiligo, roughly 15% had at least one other autoimmune condition.
In a 2016 study of 1,098 people with vitiligo, nearly 20% had at least one other autoimmune condition. Additionally, nearly 3% had more than one other condition.
In both studies, the most common co-occurring condition in people with vitiligo was hypothyroidism. Other common conditions in one or both studies included alopecia areata, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
People with vitiligo may also have an increased risk of other autoimmune conditions, such as pernicious anemia, Addison’s disease, and Sjögren’s disease.
Thyroid disease affects the body’s production of thyroid hormone, which controls its use of energy. In hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone. In hyperthyroidism, it produces too much of this hormone.
Thyroid disease can cause symptoms such as:
- unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- difficulty tolerating cold or heat
- mood changes
- changes in heart rate
- changes in menstrual periods
- changes in libido or fertility
Common causes of thyroid disease include autoimmune thyroid disorders, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease.
Genetic studies have identified multiple genes that may affect the risk of both vitiligo and autoimmune thyroid disorders, according to a 2017 review.
Hypothyroidism appears to be particularly common in people with vitiligo.
In the 2020 study above, hypothyroidism affected 10.7% of women and 3.7% of men with vitiligo. In the 2016 study, thyroid disease affected 18.5% of women and 5.1% of men, and most of them had hypothyroidism.
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune condition that causes patchy or total hair loss. It usually affects hair on the scalp and face, but it may also cause hair loss on other parts of the body.
Research findings on alopecia areata among people with vitiligo have been inconclusive.
The 2020 study above found no link between vitiligo and alopecia areata. However, the 2016 study found that the latter was more common than average in people with vitiligo.
Nearly 4% of people with vitiligo in the 2016 study had alopecia areata.
In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks healthy joint tissues. It can also trigger inflammation in other parts of the body.
Common symptoms include:
- joint pain
- joint stiffness
The 2020 study above found that 1.6% of people with vitiligo had rheumatoid arthritis. The condition was more than twice as common in people with vitiligo compared with the general population.
The 2016 study did not find a link between vitiligo and rheumatoid arthritis.
In IBD, the immune system attacks healthy tissue in the gastrointestinal tract.
This causes chronic inflammation and symptoms such as:
- abdominal pain
- bloody stools
- bleeding from the rectum
- weight loss
There are two main types of IBD: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
In both the 2020 and 2016 studies above, roughly 1% of people with vitiligo had IBD. The 2020 study found that IBD was roughly twice as common in people with vitiligo compared with the general population.
SLE is the most common type of lupus. It is an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks healthy tissues throughout the body. It may affect the skin, blood vessels, joints, brain, lungs, and kidneys.
SLE can cause a wide variety of symptoms, such as:
- joint pain
- joint swelling
It may cause mild to severe damage to affected organs.
The 2020 study above found that 0.5% of people with vitiligo had SLE. In the 2016 study, 0.3% of individuals with vitiligo had SLE. Both studies found it was more common than average in people with vitiligo.
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- pernicious anemia, which causes low levels of red blood cells
- Addison’s disease, which causes low levels of the hormone cortisol
- Sjögren’s disease, which causes dry eyes and mouth
- dermatomyositis, which causes muscle weakness and rash
- scleroderma, which causes the skin to harden and thicken
- psoriasis, which causes scaly patches of skin
Diabetes mellitus may also be more common than average in people with vitiligo.
Research findings on these conditions have been mixed. Some studies have found they are more common in people with vitiligo, while others have found no link.
People with vitiligo have an increased risk of other autoimmune conditions, which occur when the immune system attacks healthy tissues in the body.
Hypothyroidism is particularly common in people with vitiligo. Rheumatoid arthritis, alopecia areata, IBD, SLE, and some other autoimmune conditions may also be more common in those with vitiligo.
More research is necessary to understand why people with vitiligo have an increased risk of other autoimmune conditions. Vitiligo might share certain genetic or environmental risk factors with other conditions. Certain immune cells and processes that trigger inflammation in vitiligo also play a role in some other conditions.
People with vitiligo should let their doctor know if they experience any changes in their health.
If they have another autoimmune condition, their doctor can recommend a treatment plan.