What is alopecia areata?
Alopecia areata is a condition that causes a person's hair to fall out. (Alopecia is the medical term for hair loss; there are various types of alopecia, including alopecia areata.)
Who gets alopecia areata?
Anyone can develop alopecia; however, your chances of having alopecia areata are slightly greater if you have a relative with the condition. In addition, alopecia areata occurs more often among people who have family members with autoimmune disorders such as diabetes, lupus or thyroid disease.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the causes and symptoms of alopecia areata?
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease, where a person's immune system attacks the body, in this case, the hair follicles. When this happens, the person's hair begins to fall out, often in clumps the size and shape of a quarter. The extent of the hair loss varies; in some cases, it is only in a few spots. In others, the hair loss can be greater. On rare occasions, the person loses all of the hair on his or her head (alopecia areata totalis) or entire body (alopecia areata universalis).
It is believed that the person's genetic makeup may trigger the autoimmune reaction of alopecia areata, along with a virus or a substance the person comes into contact with.
Alopecia areata is an unpredictable disease. In some people, hair grows back but falls out again later. In others, hair grows back and remains. Each case is unique. Even if someone loses all of his or her hair, there is a chance that it will grow back.
Management and Treatment
How is alopecia areata treated?
Alopecia areata cannot be cured; however, it can be treated and the hair can grow back.
In many cases, alopecia is treated with drugs that are used for other conditions. Treatment options for alopecia areata include:
- Corticosteroids: anti-inflammatory drugs that are prescribed for autoimmune diseases. Corticosteroids can be given as an injection into the scalp or other areas, orally (as a pill), or applied topically (rubbed into the skin) as an ointment, cream, or foam. Response to therapy may be gradual.
- Rogaine ® (minoxidil): this topical drug is already used as a treatment for pattern baldness. It usually takes about 12 weeks of treatment with Rogaine before hair begins to grow.
Other drugs that are used for alopecia with varying degrees of effectiveness include medications used to treat psoriasis and topical sensitizers (drugs that are applied to the skin and cause an allergic reaction that can cause hair growth).
Living with alopecia areata
Apart from drug treatments, there are various cosmetic and protective techniques that people with alopecia can try. These include:
- Use makeup to hide or minimize hair loss.
- Wear sunglasses to protect the eyes from the sun and the environment (if there is loss of eyelashes).
- Wear coverings (wigs, hats, or scarves) to protect the head from the elements.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. Hair growth is a vitamin- and mineral-dependent process. People on fad diets often have problems with hair loss (although not specifically related to alopecia areata.)
- Reduce stress. Although never proven through large trials and investigations, many people with new onset alopecia areata have had recent stresses in life, such as work, family, deaths, surgeries, accidents, etc.
While the disease is not medically serious, it can impact people psychologically. Support groups are available to help people with alopecia areata deal with the psychological effects of the condition. Further information may be found at the National Alopecia Areata Foundation (www.naaf.org).
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