Alopecia areata, or simply Alopecia, is a disease that results in hair loss in a single, or multiple areas of the body. This most commonly involves hair loss around the scalp, face and other areas of the body. According to the Australian College of Dermatologists, alopecia is experienced by 1 in 50 people.
Affecting more than 6.8 million people in the U.S. alone, alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder that most commonly results in sporadic hair loss. Due to the nature of the disorder, hair loss can vary significantly depending on the individual in question. For example, whilst some patients experience minimal hair loss in the form of a few patches, for some it can be a lot more severe.
In some cases alopecia areata can lead to an overall hair loss on the scalp and some sufferers even experience it throughout the entire body. Although the disorder can affect men and women of all ages, the vast majority of sufferers experience the condition before they turn 30.
Within the medical industry, a loss of hair on the scalp only is referred to as “Alopecia Totalis”. For those experiencing hair loss all over, for example from their eyebrows, pubic and underarm hair, then this is referred to as “Alopecia Universalis”. Although the condition is unfavorable for a number of reasons, it does not result in physical pain, nor is it life threatening.
In our comprehensive article, we will explain everything you need to know about alopecia areata. This will include an explanation of the condition itself and an overview of its most common causes, as well as any potential treatments.
Causes of alopecia areata
Various studies have concluded that alopecia areata is caused when cells within the hair follicles are attacked by the individual’s white blood cells. Although the specific reason linked to the immune system’s decision to attack hair follicles in such a manner remains unknown, it is widely believed that the attack causes the follicles to shrink in size, subsequently resulting in hair production slowing down.
Those that study the phenomenon strongly believe that there is a direct link between alopecia areata and genetics. As a result, 1 in 5 individuals who suffer from alopecia areata also have a relative that has developed the disorder. Additional studies have also found a link between those that encounter alopecia areata and other autoimmune diseases, such as thyroiditis and vitiligo.
Although there is a general belief that stress can play a major role in causing alopecia areata, scientific evidence to support this viewpoint is rather minute. Whilst very severe cases of stress could trigger alopecia areata, research suggests that the key factor is based on genetics.
Ultimately, this genetic predisposition causes an immune attack on the hair follicles.
The most common symptoms and signs of alopecia areata
Although the affected area that alopecia areata targets is most commonly smooth, there are also cases where certain hairs remain unaffected. It is also likely that there is no damage caused to the follicular openings, insofar that alopecia areata is a non-scarring disorder.
In some cases, individuals experience symptoms such as itching, burning or nail abnormalities. Regarding the latter, common symptoms that affect the nails include the nails feeling rough, a loss of shine or the appearance of pinpoint dents, lines or white spots.
Some people affected by alopecia areata might also experience a range of hair breaks, prior to reaching the surface of the skin (Cadaver Hairs). Moreover, you might also begin to notice white hairs that have grown in the areas directly affected by hair loss,
Once again, the severity of the condition relies heavily on the specific form of alopecia. Whilst those that suffer from Alopecia Totalis will most commonly experience hair loss through their scalp only, Alopecia Universalis usually concerns the entire body.
Diagnosing alopecia areata
If you believe that you might have alopecia areata, it is highly advisable to visit a doctor. You will be able to receive a full diagnosis, which will see the doctor examine your current symptoms. This will include an examination of the extent of the hair loss, and by using a microscope, the doctor will analyse the affected area closely.
If this does not result in a firm diagnosis, the doctor might then consider performing a skin biopsy. This is a procedure that involves cutting and subsequently removing a very small sample of skin, which is then tested.
Treatments available to help alopecia areata
It is important to note that whilst certain options exist for the treatment of alopecia areata, the disorder cannot be prevented or cured in its entirety.
One such option available to those looking to treat alopecia areata is the use of anti-inflammatory medications such as corticosteroids. These can either be taken in the oral form, or through local injections. Medications currently available will either directly affect the immune system, or promote stimulation of the hair.
It is hoped that this particular form of treatment will lead to new hair growth and the process is most commonly repeated every 4-6 weeks. Some individuals report that the process can be somewhat uncomfortable, due to the prick of the needle (if opting for a local injection). Moreover, there have also been a few reports of temporary depressions of the skin, however in most cases this improves over time.
This particular form of treatment centres on a solution that contains 5% topical Minoxidil. The individual will apply the solution on to various parts of the body, most commonly around the scalp, beard or eyebrows. By applying the solution 1 or 2 times a day, it is hoped that the treatment will result in stimulation of the hair.
Those that undergo alopecia areata treatment in the form of Minoxidil can usually stop taking it if the individual’s hair subsequently grows back. However, some cases reveal that Minoxidil is not entirely effective on its own, and as such, needs to be combined with other methods.
Anthralin ointment or cream
An additional option potentially available to those suffering from alopecia areata is an ointment or cream containing Anthralin. If undergoing this particular option, individuals most commonly apply the solution once a day, directly on to the hairless patches. The individual will then leave the solution in place for a short period, before washing it off. If the treatment is successful, some individuals report visible results within 8-12 weeks.
It is also important to note that Anthralin can also lead to irritation of the skin. It is also possible that the treatment will result in a slight discoloration of the skin. Using Anthralin for short periods of time can reduce these particular side effects.
What protective safeguards should those that suffer from alopecia areata consider?
The hair on our body provides us with a number of protections against the elements. If you have alopecia areata, then you should consider the following.
- If you are exposed to the sun, make sure that you apply suitable levels of sunscreen
- If your alopecia areata has resulted in hair loss throughout the scalp, then it is highly advisable to protect it from the sun. Think about wearing a hat, scarf or wig.
- It is also a good idea to protect the eyes from debris by wearing wraparound glasses. This is a role that is usually performed by the eyelashes and eyebrows.
- You should also think about applying an ointment within the nose, as nostril hairs usually protect it from unwanted elements. It can also ensure that the inside of your nose keeps membranes moist.
Frequently Asked Questions
What parts of the body can alopecia areata affect?
Alopecia areata is usually broken down in to main forms. Those that experience hair loss through the entire body, such as the scalp, eyebrows, underarm and pubic hair, it is likely they have Alopecia Universalis. On the contrary, if the hair loss is primarily being experienced only on the scalp, then it is likely to be Alopecia Totalis. Receiving a full diagnosis from a specialist is most advisable.
How common is alopecia areata?
Alopecia areata is more common than people think. One such statistic that remains notable is that of the Australian College of Dermatologists – who claim that 1 in 50 people are affected by the condition. Researchers at the National Alopecia Areata Foundation state that globally, more than 147 million people will develop the condition at some point in their lives.
Can alopecia areata affect my everyday life?
Alopecia areata is not a medically disabling condition and as such, the vast majority of sufferers are in an excellent state of health. Therefore, the effects of alopecia areata are most commonly in the form of emotional pain.
How quickly can I find out if I have alopecia areata?
In most cases, by visiting a doctor, ascertaining whether or not you have alopecia areata is a relatively straightforward process. The doctor will usually examine the hair loss by using a microscope. If the doctor is unable to form a diagnosis, they will potentially perform a skin biopsy. This means that you will have a very small sample of skin taken from the affected area, which is then tested to ascertain the extent of the hair loss.