Vitiligo is a chronic condition that most noticeably causes a loss of skin color in patches. It’s believed to develop when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the cells that give your skin, hair, and eyes their color (known as melanocytes).
While lightened patches of skin are the main symptom, vitiligo can also affect other parts of the body where melanocytes are present, such as the inner ears or the eyes. When vitiligo impacts the eyes, it can cause changes to vision, eye color, and eye health. Experts recommend routine eye exams for people with vitiligo to help monitor any issues.
This article provides an overview of how vitiligo can impact the eyes.
How Does Vitiligo Affect the Eyes?
Melanocytes are responsible for giving our skin, hair, and eyes their color, but they also have other functions throughout the body.
For example, experts think that melanocytes in the eyes may help protect from damage, toxins, and inflammation. When these melanocytes are destroyed by the immune system due to a condition like vitiligo, some eye changes can occur.
Here’s what could happen to the eyes during the vitiligo process:
- Eye color could be impacted if melanocytes in the iris (the colored part of the eye) are affected.
- Vision changes could occur if melanocytes in the retinal pigment epithelium (a layer of the retina, the inner part of the eye that responds to light) are affected.
- Uveitis, a condition that causes eye inflammation, pain, and redness, could develop if melanocytes in the uveal tissue (middle region of the eye) are affected.
Studies suggest that when vitiligo patches are located on the face, the eyes are more likely to be impacted.
Demographic factors such as age and gender don’t seem to be significant risk factors for vitiligo that affects the eyes.
Other Vitiligo Complications
Vitiligo affects more than just the skin. Some people experience other medical and emotional or psychological complications, such as:
- Having at least one other autoimmune disease
- Hearing changes (if vitiligo impacts the melanocytes located in the inner ear)
- Experiencing a mental health condition due to social stigma linked to visible skin patches
Your eye color is determined by the melanin that’s produced by melanocytes in the iris, which is the colored part of your eye. In general, more melanin means darker-colored eyes, while less melanin results in lighter-colored eyes.
While it’s possible (but pretty rare) for your eye color to change subtly or gradually during adulthood, a sudden lightening of eye color is possibly due to a disease like vitiligo. This might look like a patchy lightening of one or both eyes to a grey or blue color.
It’s considered to be less common, but vitiligo that affects the retina could lead to slight vision changes, though likely not complete vision loss.
Much more research is needed on the way vision changes may progress with vitiligo, but experts still recommend routine eye exams as part of a vitiligo patient’s care plan. This may be particularly important if vitiligo patches appear on the face and near the eyes.
It’s also a good idea to receive vision screening, if accessible, before starting vitiligo treatment with phototherapy or topical steroids around the eyes. Some studies have noted that these treatments can have potential eye-related side effects.
If vitiligo causes damage to the uvea, it can lead to uveitis, a condition that causes:
- Eye inflammation, pain, or redness
- Light sensitivity
- Blurry vision
- Floaters (spots that appear to drift in front of your field of vision)
Studies show that uveitis seems to be one of the more commonly reported eye complications with vitiligo. There are several syndromes that include both uveitis and vitiligo in their presentation. It’s typically successfully treated with prescription steroids to reduce inflammation, but left untreated, uveitis can lead to additional eye issues, such as vision loss, scarring, glaucoma, or cataracts.
Signs of Vitiligo
The main sign of vitiligo is a loss of skin color in patches, which can develop differently for everyone. For example, the lightened patches of skin may:
- Start to appear first on the hands, face, arms, feet, or genitals
- Form on other areas of the body, including the hair and insides of the nose, mouth, ears, or eyes
- Affect both sides of the body, like a mirror image, or just one part of the body
- Continue growing over time or remain the same size
How Common Is Vitiligo?
It’s estimated that roughly 1% of the population has vitiligo. Data suggests this number may be even higher due to undiagnosed cases. While vitiligo might be more apparent in darker skin tones, vitiligo affects people of all ethnicities and skin types.
While the exact cause of vitiligo is unknown, a combination of factors including genetics, autoimmunity, stress, skin damage, and chemical exposure likely contribute to vitiligo development.
- Genetics: In some cases, vitiligo appears to run in families. Experts have found a link between certain genetic abnormalities and a greater chance of developing vitiligo. It’s estimated that around 30% of people with vitiligo have a family history of the condition.
- Autoimmune conditions: People who have an existing autoimmune disease, such as psoriasis, lupus, Hashimoto’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, or hypothyroidism, are more likely to develop vitiligo. Researchers theorize that vitiligo patients’ immune systems develop antibodies that destroy the skin pigmentation cells.
- Environmental triggers: Research suggests certain external events or circumstances can trigger the development of vitiligo in people who are genetically predisposed to the disease. This includes incidents like a severe sunburn, extreme emotional or physical stress, skin trauma, and exposure to strong toxins or chemicals. These triggers may also cause an existing vitiligo case to worsen.
Other Symptoms of Vitiligo
Some people with vitiligo will only notice the loss of skin pigmentation, while others develop one or more of the additional signs of the disease, including:
- White or grey hair: Melanocytes in the hair follicles may also be damaged by vitiligo, causing premature white or grey hair on the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, or beard.
- Severe sunburns: The lightened patches of skin are more sensitive to sun exposure, which can cause painful, swollen, or blistered sunburns in those areas.
- Skin sensations: Some people report feeling irritation, itchiness, or discomfort in the affected areas of the skin.
Getting treatment for vitiligo is a personal choice. There’s no cure for the condition, and treatment isn’t required unless it’s associated with another medical condition, such as vision changes or an autoimmune disease.
For people who do choose treatment, the goal is usually to reduce the appearance of the patches, particularly if they’re affecting a person’s quality of life. Options include:
- Prescription medications: Topical and oral prescription medications, such as corticosteroids, may help slow the progression of discolored skin patches.
- Phototherapy (light therapy): Laser or lamp procedures done at a healthcare provider’s office carefully expose the skin to small amounts of ultraviolet A or B (UVA or UVB) light to help restore lost color.
- Repigmentation surgery: Surgical procedures can take unaffected skin from one area of the body and replace an area of skin that is affected by vitiligo (similar to skin grafting).
- Depigmentation: A drug known as monobenzone can help remove the remaining pigment from the skin surrounding the patches, making them less noticeable.
- Micropigmentation: This tattooing technique is usually performed on smaller areas of skin to help blend vitiligo patches to match the rest of the skin.
- Skin camouflage products: As a temporary solution, self-tanner or makeup concealer can help add an appearance of color back to the lightened patches.
- Diet and lifestyle changes: More evidence is needed, but some research indicates that diet, supplements, and protecting your skin from the sun may help prevent color loss from getting worse.
Vitiligo develops when the immune system mistakenly attacks melanocytes, the cells that give our skin, hair, and eyes their color. While vitiligo’s main symptom is a patchy loss of skin coloring, this condition can also affect other parts of the body.
When vitiligo impacts the eyes, some people may experience slight changes to their eye color, vision, and eye health. Experts recommend monitoring this through regular visits to a healthcare provider who specializes in eye issues.
A Word From Verywell
Most health insurance plans don’t come with vision benefits, making eye care inaccessible or unaffordable for many. If your healthcare provider has recommended that you receive routine eye care for vitiligo and you need help accessing or paying for care, know there are options. Consider checking out EyeCare America or the New Eyes program, which offer services like free or low-cost exams, prescription eyeglasses, or prescription eye medications to those who qualify.
In addition, groups like the Global Vitiligo Foundation, Vitiligo Support International, and MyVitiligoTeam can help provide resources and support or refer you to a local organization, if necessary.
Frequently Asked Questions
What color does vitiligo make your eyes?
The melanocytes (pigment cells) produced in your iris determine the color of your eyes. If vitiligo affects these melanocytes, you might notice a sudden shift in eye color. The exact color can vary by person but may look gray or lighter than your regular eye color.
Can vitiligo make you blind?
It’s unlikely that vitiligo would cause blindness. Studies show that some people with vitiligo may experience small or moderate changes to their vision, though it doesn’t seem to be extremely common.
What causes vitiligo around the eyes?
Vitiligo’s patchy loss of skin coloring can happen on any part of the body, including inside and around the eyes. Vitiligo patches that appear on the face (along with the hands and/or feet) is known as acrofacial vitiligo, which is pretty common. There’s no way to predict whether those with acrofacial vitiligo will develop a loss of color around the eyes.