The term albinism usually refers to oculocutaneous (ok-u-low-ku-TAY-nee-us) albinism (OCA). OCA is a group of disorders passed down in families where the body makes little or none of a substance called melanin. The type and amount of melanin in your body determines the color of your skin, hair and eyes. Melanin also plays a role in the development and function of the eyes, so people with albinism have vision problems.
Symptoms of albinism are usually seen in a person's skin, hair and eye color, but sometimes differences are slight. People with albinism are also sensitive to the effects of the sun, so they're at higher risk of getting skin cancer.
Although there's no cure for albinism, people with the disorder can take steps to protect their skin and eyes and get proper eye and skin care.
Symptoms of albinism involve skin, hair and eye color, as well as vision.
The easiest form of albinism to see results in white hair and very light-colored skin compared with siblings or other blood relatives. But skin coloring, also called pigmentation, and hair color can range from white to brown. People of African descent who have albinism may have skin that is light brown or red brown and have freckles. For some people, skin color may be nearly the same as that of parents or siblings without albinism.
With exposure to the sun, some people may develop:
- Moles, with or without color, which are sometimes pink.
- Large freckle-like spots, called solar lentigines (len-TIJ-ih-neez).
- Sunburn and no ability to tan.
For some people with albinism, skin coloring never changes. For others, melanin production may begin or increase during childhood and the teen years, resulting in slight changes in color.
Hair color can range from very white to brown. People of African or Asian descent who have albinism may have hair color that's yellow, red or brown. Hair color also may darken by early adulthood. Or hair may stain from contact with minerals in water and the environment, making hair appear darker with age.
Eyelashes and eyebrows are often pale. Eye color can range from very light blue to brown and may change with age.
With albinism, the colored parts of the eyes, called the irises, usually don't have enough pigment. This allows light to shine through the irises and makes the eyes extremely sensitive to bright light. Because of this, very light-colored eyes may appear red in some lighting.
Vision problems are a key feature of all types of albinism. Eye problems may include:
- Rapid, back-and-forth movement of the eyes that can't be controlled, called nystagmus.
- An uncommon head position or head posture, such as tilting the head to try to reduce eye movements and see better.
- Eyes that can't look at the same direction at the same time or they appear to be crossed, a condition called strabismus.
- Problems seeing near objects or far objects, called farsightedness or nearsightedness.
- Extreme sensitivity to light, called photophobia.
- A difference in the curve of the front surface of the eye or the lens inside the eye, called astigmatism, which causes blurred vision.
- Differences in the development of the thin layer of tissue on the inside back wall of the eye, called the retina. This difference results in reduced vision.
- Nerve signals from the retina to the brain that don't follow the usual nerve pathways in the eye. This is called misrouting of the optic nerve.
- Poor depth perception, which means not being able to see things in three dimensions and judge how far away an object is.
- Legal blindness — vision less than 20/200 — or complete blindness.
When to see a doctor
At your child's birth, the health care provider may notice a lack of color in hair or skin that affects the eyelashes and eyebrows. The provider will likely order an eye exam and closely follow any changes in your child's skin color and vision.
If you observe signs of albinism in your baby, talk to your health care provider.
Contact your health care provider if your child with albinism experiences frequent nosebleeds, easy bruising or long-term infections. These symptoms may suggest rare but serious hereditary conditions that include albinism.
Several genes give instructions for making one of several proteins involved in producing melanin. Melanin is made by cells called melanocytes that are found in your skin, hair and eyes.
Albinism is caused by a change in one of these genes. Different types of albinism can occur, based mainly on which gene change caused the disorder. The gene change may result in no melanin at all or a big decrease in the amount of melanin.
Types of albinism
Types of albinism are grouped based on how they're passed down in families and on the gene that is affected.
- Oculocutaneous albinism (OCA), the most common type, means a person gets two copies of a changed gene — one from each parent. This is called autosomal recessive inheritance. OCA is the result of a change in one of eight genes, labeled from OCA1 to OCA8. OCA causes decreased pigment in the skin, hair and eyes, as well as vision problems. The amount of pigment varies by type. The resulting color of skin, hair and eyes also varies by and within types.
- Ocular albinism is mainly limited to the eyes, causing vision problems. The most common form of ocular albinism is type 1. This type is passed down by a gene change on the X chromosome. X-linked ocular albinism can be passed on by a mother who carries one changed X gene to her son. This is called X-linked recessive inheritance. Ocular albinism usually occurs only in males. It's much less common than OCA.
- Albinism related to rare hereditary syndromes can occur. For example, Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome includes a form of OCA, as well as bleeding and bruising problems and lung and bowel diseases. Chediak-Higashi syndrome includes a form of OCA, as well as immune problems with recurrent infections, problems with the brain and nerves, bleeding disorders, and other serious issues.
Risk factors depend on whether one or both parents carry an affected gene. Different types of albinism have different types of inheritance patterns.
Albinism can include skin and eye complications. It also can include social and emotional challenges.
Problems with vision can impact learning, employment and the ability to drive.
People with albinism have skin that is very sensitive to light and sun. Sunburn is one of the most serious complications of albinism. Sun exposure can cause sun damage, which may result in rough and thickened skin. Sunburn also can increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
Because of the lack of skin pigment, a type of skin cancer called melanoma may appear as pink or red growths or moles, rather than the usual black or brown color. This can make skin cancer harder to identify at an early stage. Without careful and regular skin exams, melanoma may not be diagnosed until it's advanced.
Social and emotional challenges
Some people with albinism may experience discrimination. The reactions of other people to those with albinism can have a negative impact on people with the condition.
People with albinism may experience bullying, teasing or unwanted questions about their appearance, eyewear or visual aid tools. They may look different from members of their own families or ethnic groups, so they may feel like outsiders or be treated like outsiders. These experiences may cause social isolation, poor self-esteem and stress.
Using the term "person with albinism" is preferred to avoid the negative impact of other terms.
If a family member has albinism, a genetic counselor can help you understand the type of albinism and the chances of having a future child with albinism. The counselor can explain the available genetic tests.