Poliosis

Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, MD on May 4, 2017Written by Erica Cirino on May 4, 2017

What is poliosis?

Poliosis is when a person is born with or develops a patch of white or gray hair while otherwise maintaining their natural hair color. It can affect both children and adults. You’ve probably seen people with poliosis in movies, on stage, or on TV. Johnny Depp’s character has it in the movie “Sweeney Todd.” Singer Bonnie Raitt has it naturally.

The word for this condition comes from the Greek word “pilios,” which means “gray.” Melanin is the substance that gives hair its color. People with poliosis have a decreased level or complete lack of melanin in the roots of affected hairs, also called hair follicles.

Poliosis alone can’t seriously harm your health, and it can be covered up with hair dyes, hats, or bandanas if you’re uncomfortable with it. But poliosis can sometimes co-occur with serious conditions.

What are the signs of poliosis?

Signs of poliosis include one or more patches of white hair on hairy parts of the body. Poliosis often affects hair on the scalp, but can also affect the eyebrows, eyelashes, or other parts of the body that are covered with hair.

What causes poliosis?

Some people say that psychological trauma, physical shock, or other stressful experiences cause poliosis to occur, sometimes overnight. However, experts say these claims are untrue.

While the causes of poliosis aren’t completely understood, experts say the real causes of poliosis likely include:

  • genetics
  • autoimmune disease
  • damage to hair follicles

These medical conditions sometimes co-occur with poliosis:

  • vitiligo: the loss of pigment from the skin, causing patchy changes in skin color
  • alopecia areata: hair loss mostly occurring on the scalp
  • halo moles: a mole with a white ring around it
  • piebaldism: a patch of white hair above the forehead that often also discolors part of the forehead skin
  • tuberous sclerosis: cell overgrowth in various organs and body tissues
  • Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada disease, Allezandrini syndrome, and Waardenburg syndrome: rare diseases causing pigmentation changes in skin and hair, accompanied by neurological, vision, and hearing problems

How is poliosis diagnosed?

The presence of a white or gray patch of hair is enough to diagnose the condition.

If poliosis appears to be affecting your child, it’s important to see a doctor. While poliosis can occur at any age, gray or white hair is uncommon in children. It can be a sign of thyroid disorders, vitamin B-12 deficiency, and other serious conditions. A blood test can help check for the conditions that may be causing your child’s poliosis.

How is poliosis treated?

There is no way to permanently change the color of hair affected by poliosis. Still, if you want to make your poliosis less visible, it’s relatively simple and inexpensive to dye hair that’s been lightened by poliosis. You can use a home kit or visit a hair salon to have it done. You’ll have to redye your hair when your lighter roots begin to come in.

If you want to cover up your poliosis without the use of hair dye, consider wearing hats, bandanas, headbands, or other types of hair coverings.

That said, many people are comfortable leaving their hair be, as well.

What is the outlook for poliosis?

Poliosis rarely spreads once a person has it. While poliosis is a permanent condition, it’s simple to make it less noticeable if you choose to do so.

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