Psychocutaneous Medicine

Vitiligo Disease Triggers: Psychological Stressors Preceding the Onset of Disease

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The present study found that 56.6% of participants experienced 1 or more deaths (17%) and/or stressful life events (51%) within the 2 years prior to vitiligo onset. These results are consistent with prior smaller studies that demonstrated a high frequency of stressful events preceding vitiligo onset. A case-controlled study found stressful events in 12 of 21 (57%) Romanian children with vitiligo, which was higher than controls.19 Another questionnaire-based, case-controlled study compared a heterogeneous group of 32 adolescent and adult Romanian patients with vitiligo and found higher odds of a stressful event in women preceding vitiligo diagnosis compared to controls.10 A retrospective analysis of 65 Croatian patients with vitiligo also reported that 56.9% (37/65) had some associated psychological factors.9 Another retrospective study of 31 adults with vitiligo found increased occurrence of 3 or more uncontrollable events, decreased perceived social support, and increased anxiety in vitiligo patients versus 116 other dermatologic disease controls.12 A questionnaire-based study found increased bereavements, changes in sleeping and eating habits, and personal injuries/illnesses in 73 British adults with vitiligo compared to 73 other age- and sex-matched dermatologic disease controls.11 All of these studies were limited by a small sample size, and the patient populations were localized to a regional dermatology referral center. The present study provided a larger analysis of stressful life events preceding vitiligo onset and included a diverse patient population.

The present study found that stressful life events and deaths of a loved one are not associated with vitiligo extent and distribution. This finding suggests that stressful life events may act as vitiligo triggers in genetically predisposed individuals, but ultimately the disease course and prognosis are driven by other factors, such as increased systemic inflammation or other immunologic abnormalities. Indeed, Silverberg and Silverberg20 and other investigators21,22 reported relative deficiencies of 25-hydroxyvitamin D,23 vitamins B6 and B12, and folic acid,20 as well as elevated serum homocysteine levels in vitiligo patients. Increased serum homocysteine levels were associated with increased BSA of vitiligo lesions.20 Elevated serum homocysteine levels also have been associated with increased inflammation in coronary artery disease,24 psoriasis,25,26 and in vitro.27 These laboratory anomalies likely reflect an underlying predisposition toward vitiligo, which might be triggered by stress responses or secondarily altered immune responses.

The present study had several strengths, including being prospective with a large sample size. The patient population included a large sample of men and women with representation of various adult ages and vitiligo extent. However, this study also had potential limitations. Measures of vitiligo extent were self-reported and were not clinically assessed. To address this limitation, we validated the questionnaire before posting it online.15 Invitation to participate in the survey was distributed by vitiligo support groups, which may have resulted in a selection bias toward participants with greater disease severity or with a poorer quality of life associated with vitiligo. Invitation to participate in this study was sent to members of vitiligo support groups, which allowed for recruitment of a large number of vitiligo patients despite a relatively low prevalence of disease in the general population. However, there are several challenges using this approach for nonvitiligo controls. Using participants with another dermatological disease as a control group may yield spurious results. Ideally, a large randomized sample of healthy participants with minimization of bias should be used for controls, which is an ambitious undertaking that was beyond the scope of this pilot study and will be the subject of future studies. Finally, this analysis found associations between stressors that occurred in the 2 years prior to vitiligo onset with symptomatic disease. We chose a broad interval for stressors because early vitiligo lesions may go unnoticed, making recognition of stressors occurring within days or weeks of onset infeasible. Further, we considered that chronic and prolonged stressors are more likely to have harmful consequences than acute stressors. Thus, stressors occurring within a more narrow interval (eg, 2 months) may not have the same association with vitiligo. Future studies are warranted to precisely identify the type and timing of psychological stressors preceding vitiligo onset.


In conclusion, there is a high prevalence of stressful life events preceding vitiligo, which may play an important role as disease triggers as well as predict the presence of intermittent abdominal cramping and itching or burning of skin. These associations indicate that screening of vitiligo patients for psychological stressors, abdominal cramping, and itching and/or burning of skin should be included in the routine assessment of vitiligo patients.


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