What is vitiligo? Why won't my baby's eye clear up?


Q. I recently developed vitiligo. It started as a few small patches of pale skin on the back of my hands. Now, the patches have become bigger and begun to merge. There are some new patches on my neck. One of my aunts has vitiligo. Does it run in families? Will my children develop it?

A. Vitiligo causes patches of depigmented skin. On naturally pale skin, the loss of pigment may be hardly noticeable, but on dark skin it can be very obvious. The affected skin doesn't hurt or itch, but it can cause psychological distress. The cause is unknown. When vitiligo starts - often in the teenage years and twenties - the cells that produce the skin's melanin die off and disappear. As more cells die, the white patches grow. It is fairly common - about one in 100 has it. Sometimes vitiligo seems to run in families; no specific gene has been implicated, but there may begenetic factors. There are treatments, but none is uniformly effective. Steroid and other creams, ultraviolet light treatments and even surgery are used. As two people in your family now have vitiligo, there is a greater risk your children will be affected, but their chance of getting it is still relatively small. The Vitiligo Society is at 125 Kennington Road, London SE11 6SF (0800 018 2631; www.vitiligosociety.org.uk.


Q. Our three-month-old son has a sticky left eye that won't clear up. Our health visitor and doctor both say it will sort itself out, but should we be demanding to see a specialist?

A. Lots of babies get sticky eyes soon after birth, and they usually clear up within a few days. There's no need to do much more than keep the eyes clean by mopping them regularly with cotton wool and water. The problem is caused by tears that don't drain away because the tear ducts are blocked. Sometimes the tear ducts work well from the moment of birth, but often they seem to be blocked, probably because they aren't yet fully open. As the baby grows, the ducts open up and the problem of sticky eyes usually solves itself. As long as the eye is not getting red and inflamed - a sign of infection - just keep up the regime of warm water and cotton wool. I have never seen a baby's sticky eye that doesn't manage to cure itself.

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A view on head lice, from RD:

Condition and comb is the best bet. However, it takes ages; at least half an hour with the conditioner, then a half hour with the comb (although my daughter had hip-length hair). I found Dice (Eunique Ltd) most effective. It's natural, which probably means the chemicals aren't pharmacologically derived, but at least it doesn't contain Agent Orange.

Send questions and suggestions to A Question of Health, 'The Independent', Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; fax 020-7005 2182; e-mail health@independent.co.uk. Dr Kavalier regrets he cannot respond personally to questions