Have you ever heard the word albino? It’s a word that’s sometimes used to describe a condition called albinism. Humans, animals, and even plants can have this condition. This means that the person, animal, or plant doesn’t have the usual amount of pigment or color.
What is albinism?
However, to understand albinism, you need to first know about melanin. Melanin is a chemical in our bodies that colors our skin, eyes, and hair. It’s made by melanocytes, which are cells found in the bottom layer of your skin.
Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in the skin, hair and/or eyes. Albinism is a hereditary condition, which means it’s passed from parent to child. But most children with albinism are born to parents who have normal hair and eye color.
A common myth is that people with albinism have red eyes. Although lighting conditions can allow the blood vessels at the back of the eye to be seen, which can cause the eyes to look reddish or violet, most people with albinism have blue eyes, and some have hazel or brown eyes. There are different types of albinism and the amount of pigment in the eyes varies; however, vision problems are associated with albinism.
Types of albinism
While most people with albinism have very light skin and hair, levels of pigmentation can vary depending on one’s type of albino. There are two basic types of albino, both of which cause vision problems, including low vision.
One type of albino is oculocutaneous albinism or OCA. OCA causes someone to have decreased pigment in the eyes, hair, and skin.
The second type of albino is ocular albinism or OA. OA mainly affects the eyes. The skin and hair are of normal or near-normal color. Because a child with ocular albino does not have any outward difference in appearance, eye problems may be the first symptoms of an albino.
Causes of albinism
Our body is made up of billions of cells. These cells are too small to see without a strong microscope. Inside these cells are things called chromosomes, which contain hundreds, or even thousands, of genes. These genes give us our physical traits. Thus our look and lots of other traits about us.
Genes carry the information that makes you an individual. Genes tell your body whether to give you curly or straight hair, long or short legs, or even brown or blue eyes. You might have heard people say you have eyes like your mom, hair like your dad, a smile like your grandma, or a laugh like your grandpa. Why? Because they passed some of their genes on to you!
Half of your genes are from your dad and half are from your mom. Sometimes, a mom and a dad might carry an “albinism gene” but not show any signs of albino themselves. But they might have a kid who is an albino. How can that be?
Well, this happens because each parent has a normal pigment gene and an albino gene. For a kid to have albinism, the dad’s albino gene and the mom’s albino gene both have to get passed on to the kid.
But if a kid gets an albinism gene from one parent and a normal pigment gene from the other, the kid won’t be an albino. Instead, the kid will be a “carrier” of an albino gene. This means he or she would have one normal pigment gene and one albino gene. So, if that kid grows up and has a child with someone who is also a carrier of an albino gene, there would be a chance that their child might be an albino.
Symptoms of albinism
- They often have white or very light blonde hair, although some have brown or ginger hair.
- Very pale skin that burns easily in the sun
- Misalignment of the eyes
- Can have pale blue, grey or brown eyes
- Poor eyesight and low vision
- Can have blurred vision
- Large freckle-like spots – lentigines
- The eyes are sensitive to light
- The eyes move involuntarily from side to side
- Eyes point in different directions
Treatments and lifestyle remedies
There is no treatment or cure, but the skin sensitivity and vision problems do require attention throughout life.
Any treatment a person with the disease may need in regards to eye or vision problems will depend on his or her individual symptoms. Some people may need to wear corrective lenses and nothing more. Others whose vision is severely impaired may need low vision support, such as large-print or high-contrast reading materials, large computer screens, and so forth.
Skin can burn easily, increasing the risk of skin damage and even skin cancer. It’s vital that people with albinism use a broad-spectrum sunscreen and wear protective clothing when outside to prevent ultraviolet-induced damage to the skin. Regular skin checks for cancer are very important. Wearing sunglasses is also imperative.