Despite the lack of any Food and Drug Administration–approved medications for vitiligo, there are plenty of treatment options, and therapy can make a big difference in an individual’s quality of life, according to Seemal Desai, MD, of the University of Texas, Dallas.

“We have topical steroids. We have vitamin D analogs, calcineurin inhibitors, and depigmentation therapy. We also have systemic therapy, phototherapy, surgical treatment, and even psychological therapy, Dr. Desai said in a presentation at MedscapeLive’s virtual Women’s & Pediatric Dermatology Seminar.

Head and neck vitiligo, which “tends to respond very nicely to treatment,” is one of the affected areas “where we have an important obligation to make sure our patients are effectively and aggressively treated,” he said.

According to Dr. Desai, there are three kinds of vitiligo. Active/unstable vitiligo is marked by depigmentation spreading across 1%-2% of body surface area per month, the size of about one to two palms. Refractory vitiligo responds poorly to therapy with less than 25% of affected areas experiencing repigmentation. And the third type is chronic vitiligo. “The majority of patients we see are in this phase, where depigmentation is present for at least 1 year with no history of spontaneous repigmentation.”

Before turning to therapy, he said, make sure to understand what the patient wants. “Are they even interested in being treated? I’ve had some patients with vitiligo, it’s only on their chest, and they’re always covered. They don’t even want anything. Then I have other patients who only want their face and hands treated because those are the only parts of their body that are exposed.”

To stabilize vitiligo, Dr. Desai recommends treating patients with “mini-pulse” oral therapy with systemic steroids. “I prescribe 4 milligrams of dexamethasone to be taken 2 consecutive days per week, such as Saturdays and Sundays. I usually halve the dose in children aged less than 16 years of age, so they’d be taking 2 milligrams.” Make sure, he said, to counsel patients on side effects.

He also recommends antioxidants, particularly polypodium leucotomos, “which has been shown in studies to increase the rates of head and neck repigmentation when combined with narrowband UVB.” He recommends 240 milligrams or higher, 2 or 3 times a day. He adds that alpha lipoic acid – in combination with vitamin C, vitamin E, and phototherapy – has also been shown to be effective in inducing repigmentation, especially on the head and neck.

As for newer drugs, Dr. Desai said afamelanotide, an analogue of alpha melanocyte-stimulating hormone combined with phototherapy, has shown promise. (It was approved in 2019 to increase pain free light exposure in adults with a history of phototoxic reactions related to erythropoietic protoporphyria.) Like other medications he mentioned, it isn’t FDA approved for treating vitiligo.

On another front, “Janus kinase inhibitors are our new frontier in treating vitiligo,” he said. “Tofacitinib can be dosed as an off-label usage in vitiligo in doses of 5 milligrams every other day, up to 5 milligrams daily. It’s half of the dose of rheumatoid arthritis, which is 5 milligrams b.i.d. You can actually start to see repigmentation as soon as 2 months, and then improvement up to 5 months.”

The drug requires laboratory monitoring and is expensive, he said, and JAK inhibitor side effects must be discussed with all patients.

Topical JAK inhibitors – tofacitinib 2% cream and ruxolitinib 1.5% cream – are also being evaluated as treatment for vitiligo. “I find that ruxolitinib works a little bit better, and the early bit of vitiligo data has shown that it tends to have more of a robust pigmentation response compared to tofacitinib,” said Dr. Desai, who gets these drugs compounded for topical use.

Dr. Desai added that he prefers to combine JAK inhibitors with phototherapy when possible.

For resistant vitiligo, he said, “lasers can help, especially Q-switched ruby and Q-switched Alexandrite laser. Q-switched Nd:Yag is very popular in Asia.”

In the big picture, he said, patients can benefit greatly from treatment. “Just think about the psychological improvement a patient would get by not having to get stares when walking in a mall and not having to deal with vitiligo lesions all over their cheek and neck.”

Dr. Desai disclosed performing clinical trials and/or consulting for numerous companies, including Pfizer, Allergan, AbbVie, and Dr. Reddy’s, among others. MedscapeLive and this news organization are owned by the same parent company.