Alopecia areata is a condition that causes a person’s hair to fall out. (Alopecia is the medical term for baldness; there are various types of alopecia, including alopecia areata.)
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease; that is, the person's immune system attacks their body, in this case, their 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, along with a virus or a substance the person comes into contact with.
Alopecia 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.
Apart from drug treatments, there are various cosmetic and protective techniques that people with alopecia can try. These include:
- Using makeup to hide or minimize hair loss
- Wearing sunglasses to protect the eyes from the sun and the environment
- Wearing coverings (wigs, hats, or scarves) to protect the head from the elements
- Eating 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.)
- Reducing 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 deal with the psychological effects of the condition. Further information may be found at the National Alopecia Areata Foundation.