Recent evidence has shown that COVID-19 vaccination may correlate with the onset or worsening of vitiligo.

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Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition involving skin pigmentation or color loss. A person with vitiligo develops patches of skin with little or no pigmentation across their body.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend COVID-19 vaccination for all 6 months or older.

COVID-19 vaccines are effective in preventing the disease or minimizing its symptoms. However, these vaccines may cause side effects and trigger certain conditions, such as vitiligo. Despite this, doctors still advise people to receive a vaccination to reduce the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Keep reading to learn more about how COVID-19 vaccination works and the potential link between vitiligo and COVID-19 vaccines.

The main COVID-19 vaccines include:

  • Pfizer-BioNTech
  • Moderna
  • Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen

This section will review how these vaccines work and what side effects they may cause.

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are messenger RNA (RNA) vaccines. This type of vaccine delivers artificial genetic material to the body.

This genetic material, mRNA, contains instructions for building a certain protein, which causes an immune response in the body. The body creates antibodies in response to this immune activation.

If an individual later contracts SAR-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — they will already have antibodies in their body to fight this infection. Antibodies will help them fight SAR-CoV-2 or minimize the symptoms of COVID-19.

Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen

Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine is a vector vaccine. This vaccine delivers an artificial, harmless virus to the body. Health experts call this artificial virus a vector virus. After it enters the body, this vector virus also instructs cells to create a new type of protein.

Like in mRNA vaccines, this protein causes an immune response in the body, which produces antibodies that can help fight off SAR-CoV-2 in the future.

In rare instances, individuals have developed certain skin changes, such as vitiligo, after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

Scientists believe this occurrence may relate to the effect of vaccination on melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells responsible for giving skin its color and contain the pigment melanin. After a COVID-19 vaccination, new immune cells may attack melanocytes in rare cases, leading to the onset of vitiligo.

Recent studies of vitiligo cases

Different vaccines across different age groups have triggered the development of vitiligo following the COVID-19 vaccination.

Both a 58-year-old man who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and a 61-year-old woman who had the Moderna vaccine developed vitiligo. These cases emphasize that the COVID-19 vaccines may be among the list of triggers for vitiligo since it causes an extreme inflammatory response.

A 33-year-old woman also developed vitiligo after the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Another case of vitiligo occurred in a 13-year-old girl who received the same vaccine. Both of these individuals had a family history of vitiligo.

Researchers believe that the COVID-19 vaccine may induce people to develop vitiligo, which already has a genetic susceptibility to the skin condition.

However, this adverse skin reaction should not deter eligible candidates from receiving a vaccination. The risk of these mild and manageable reactions is small compared with the possible risks of developing COVID-19.

Although cases of vitiligo worsening after a COVID-19 vaccine are rare, they do occur. Scientists believe that people with a history of the condition have a higher risk of adverse reactions to the vaccine.

Researchers identified a 22-year-old man who experienced worsening vitiligo following his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Two weeks after vaccination, his patches of vitiligo began to worsen.

In this case, the researchers hypothesized that this resulted from antibodies produced by the man’s body in response to his COVID-19 vaccination. These antibodies may compound the effects of melanocyte-attacking antibodies.

In another case, a 64-year-old woman developed lichen planus after receiving the second dose of the Pzifer vaccine. Lichen planus is a condition that can cause rashes across the skin’s surface.

This woman had had vitiligo for 30 years before she developed lichen planus. The rashes due to this condition appeared on the parts of her skin that the vitiligo had affected. As she experienced this after both vaccine doses, researchers believe the vaccine caused it.

Although the vast majority of people who receive a COVID-19 vaccine will not experience worsening vitiligo, additional studies are necessary to determine how and why this occurs in rare cases.

Vitiligo symptoms can vary widely between individuals. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • patches of milky-white skin on areas such as the face, hands, arms, and feet
  • loss of pigmentation on the inside of the mouth or nose
  • hair that has turned white

In some rare cases, people with vitiligo may also experience swelling or inflammation in the eyes or ears.

Some individuals with the condition may only develop a few patches or spots throughout the body. Others may experience more generalized patches that affect larger parts of their bodies. In rare cases, vitiligo may cause a total loss of pigment in all skin cells.

Vitiligo occurs similarly in people of all races but may be more noticeable in individuals with darker skin.

Read more about vitiligo on black skin.

Most people who receive a COVID-19 vaccine will experience only mild side effects. These possible side effects may include:

Usually, these side effects are not severe and resolve within a few days. In extremely rare cases, individuals can experience more extreme side effects, such as anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction.

For example, a small number of people who received the Johnson and Johnson’s Janssen vaccine developed blood clots. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that this occurs at a rate of 3.23 per million doses of vaccine administered.

Cases of myocarditis also occurred more in male adolescents and young adults after the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. However, most people who received care responded well to treatment.

There is no ideal treatment for vitiligo. A dermatologist considers the most suitable treatment plan for each person. Doctors may prescribe topical or oral medications or recommend laser treatments for people with the condition.

Ultimately, decisions surrounding vitiligo treatment are highly personal. People with vitiligo may choose not to treat their condition or seek effective alternative treatment options such as dietary changes.

COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID-19 or minimizing its symptoms.

In extremely rare cases, a COVID-19 vaccine may cause or worsen vitiligo. Further studies must determine why this happens and who might be at risk.

Although doctors cannot cure vitiligo, treatment options are available for individuals with this condition.