Have you ever heard the word albino? It’s a word that’s sometimes used to describe a condition called albinism (say: AL-buh-nih-zum). Humans, animals, and even plants can have this condition, which means that the person, animal, or plant doesn’t have the usual amount of pigment, or color.
You might know that albinism causes a kind of pale appearance. But what exactly causes albinism?
To understand albinism, you need to first know about melanin (say: MEL-uh-nin). Melanin is a chemical in our bodies that colors our skin, eyes, and hair. It’s made by melanocytes (say: muh-LAH-nuh-sytes), which are cells found in the bottom layer of your skin.
Sometimes, a kid or an animal might be born whose body can’t make a normal amount of melanin. This is what happens with albinism, which can show up as a lack of pigment (color) in the skin, eyes, hair, fur, or feathers of that kid or animal. There are different kinds of albinism. Some kids with albinism might have pale skin or hair. Other types of albinism might affect only the eyes.
Most kids with albinism have blue eyes, and others have brownish eyes. In some cases of albinism, a kid’s eyes might appear pink or reddish. This isn’t because the iris (the colored part of the eye) is pink or red. It’s because the iris actually has very little color. The eyes appear pink or red because the blood vessels inside of the eye (on the retina) show through the iris.
Stay in the Shade
Besides giving your skin, eyes, and hair its color, melanin helps protect your skin from the sun. You know how a person’s skin gets darker after hanging out at the beach? That’s your melanin at work, darkening your skin to give it more protection from the sun’s rays. So, without enough melanin, your skin won’t be able to protect itself. Kids with albinism can get sunburned very easily.
That’s why it’s a good idea for anyone with albinism to stay covered while in the sun (or even to stay out of the sun completely). Kids with albinism can go to the beach and spend time outdoors, but they have to use lots of sunscreen and watch the amount of time they’re soaking up rays. Kids with albinism should talk to their doctors to find out whether it’s OK to spend any time in the sun.
Some kids with albinism wear glasses or contact lenses to help them see better. Others might need eye surgery. An eye doctor can help figure out ways to help a person with albinism see better.
Another problem for kids with albinism is that their eyes can be very sensitive to light. The iris usually helps control the amount of light coming into your eye and hitting your retina, which is located at the back of your eyeball. When a person has albinism, the iris doesn’t have enough color and can’t properly shield the retina from light. So, kids with albinism often squint in bright light. Wearing sunglasses or tinted contact lenses can help make a kid with albinism more comfortable out in the sun.
What Causes It?
You can’t “catch” albinism, like you catch a cold or the flu. It’s caused by a person’s genes. You might have learned about genes in science class, but what exactly are they?
Everyone’s body is made up of billions of cells, which 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 — how we look — and lots of other stuff about us, like the instructions our body parts need to work properly.
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!
Everyone has two sets of genes. 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 albinism themselves. But they might have a kid who has albinism. How can that be?
Well, this happens because each parent has a normal pigment gene and an albinism gene. For a kid to have albinism, the dad’s albinism gene and the mom’s albinism 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 have albinism. Instead, the kid will be a “carrier” of an albinism gene — which means he or she would have one normal pigment gene and one albinism gene. So, if that kid grows up and has a child with someone who is also a carrier of an albinism gene, there would be a chance that their child might have albinism.
So what about kids with light skin and light hair . . . or animals with white fur or feathers? Do they have albinism? Not necessarily. Their genes may tell them to be light-skinned or fair-haired, like their mom or dad. Likewise, not all animals with white fur or feathers have albinism. Polar bears, for instance, have genes that tell them to be white.
What’s Life Like for Someone With Albinism?
Kids with albinism are just like other kids — they just need to talk with their doctor about taking care of their eyes and skin, especially if they’re going to be in the sun. And albinism doesn’t stop kids from reaching their goals. Lots of kids with albinism have grown up to be doctors, lawyers, musicians, and athletes. Most kids with albinism can be anything they want to be, just like any other kid!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2014