What are white patches?
White patches on your skin are a common type of depigmented skin lesion associated with an infection, allergy, or autoimmune disorder. Rarely, skin cancers and precancerous changes can cause white patches on the skin, but these serious causes are much less common.
One common cause of white spots, or hypopigmentation, is a fungal infection of the skin known as tinea versicolor. This fungal infection is not contagious and can be treated easily with over-the-counter medications. Tinea versicolor is sometimes associated with other symptoms, such as itching or dryness on or around the white patches.
Another important cause of white patches on the skin is vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder that leads to the destruction of melanocytes, the cells that make the pigment that gives your skin color. White patches from vitiligo may come and go or they may be permanent. Vitiligo is most commonly only a cosmetic issue, and a variety of medicines and some procedures can help to minimize the appearance of the white patches.
A third important cause of white patches on the skin is eczema. Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition caused by a hypersensitivity or allergy and is often associated with asthma. Eczema usually results in scaling and itching of the skin, sometimes with peeling or oozing, but it can also lead to the formation of white patches.
Your white patches may develop slowly or all at once. White patches are usually are not serious, although you may wish to consult your health care provider to determine the exact cause of your white patches. Seek prompt medical care if your white patches are persistent or cause you concern.
What other symptoms might occur with white patches?
White patches may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.
Common symptoms that may occur along with white patches
White patches may accompany other symptoms including:
- Asthma and allergies
- Burning or tenderness
- Changes in the feel of your skin, especially on or around the white patches
- Dryness of the skin, especially around the white patches
- Itchy skin
- Peeling or scaling of the skin
- Redness, warmth or swelling
Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition
In very rare cases, white patches may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have white patches along with other serious symptoms including:
- Difficulty breathing
- Sudden swelling of the face, lips or throat
What causes white patches?
White patches are usually caused by one of two conditions: tinea versicolor or vitiligo. Less commonly, white patches on the skin can be caused a skin inflammation known as eczema.
Tinea versicolor is a type of fungal infection that leads to the development of white patches. The patches can appear anywhere on your body, depending on where the fungus grows. The white patches seen in vitiligo are the result of an autoimmune disorder. In vitiligo, the body’s immune system mistakenly targets melanocytes, the cells that produce your skin pigment, as a foreign substance. When these cells are destroyed, the lack of skin pigment causes white patches. Eczema is a condition where the skin is overly sensitive to common allergens and becomes scaly, itchy, and sometimes white.
Common causes of white patches
White patches may be caused by common conditions including:
Tinea versicolor, a fungal infection of the skin
Vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder that destroys the color-producing cells in your skin
Additional causes of white patches
White patches can also be caused by other conditions, including eczema. This is a common allergic skin condition, especially in children. It usually causes itching and scaling of the skin and, rarely, white patches. In adults small circular areas of pigment exhaustion may develop on areas of skin where there has been chronic sun exposure.
Serious or life-threatening causes of white patches
In some very rare cases, white patches may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately by a healthcare provider. These cases include precancerous changes in the skin and skin cancers.
Questions for diagnosing the cause of white patches
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your white patches including:
When did you first notice the white patches?
Did you start any new medications or try any new types of food immediately before the white patches formed?
Do you have any other skin lesions?
Do you have any other symptoms?
Does the white patch itch or burn?
Have the white patches changed in size, shape or color?
Have you had similar lesions before?
Have you tried any medications or other measures for your white patches?
Do the white patches come and go with the seasons or with rainy or dry weather?
What are the potential complications of white patches?
White patches result of a variety of causes, but they are usually mild and not associated with complications. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
- Cosmetic disfigurement
- Further hypopigmentation (loss of color in the skin)
- Spread of cancer