Losing your hair can be a challenging situation, especially when you don’t know what’s causing it. There’s a dermatology condition called alopecia areata (AA) that may be behind the mystery.
Four million Americans will develop alopecia areata in their lifetime, which is around 2% of the population. Children and young adults are the most stricken group, but it can develop at any age.
Alopecia literally means hair loss. When you have this condition, you lose hair in round patches resulting in bald spots. A small minority of individuals with this condition will lose all of their hair on their scalp or on their body.
In many cases, the hair grows back only to fall out again. Hair loss can also last many years. In other cases, the patient’s hair will return to normal after just one episode. At Water’s Edge Dermatology, we’ve treated patients with all degrees of hair loss.
Alopecia areata can be a frustrating condition because the extent and consistency of the disease varies from person to person. While there is no cure, the body may decide one day to autocorrect the problem, thereby putting the brakes on hair loss.
For those who are not so fortunate, there are treatment options that could result in faster, more reliable hair regrowth. That’s why it’s important to see your Water’s Edge Dermatology practitioner to find the correct course of action for your case.
Causes of Alopecia Areata
Alopecia areata is not contagious and it’s not caused by stress. The culprit is the immune system. For reasons unknown, it attacks the hair follicles, which causes hair loss. A person’s particular genetic makeup combined with other factors triggers AA. One in five persons with AA has a family member who also has the disease.
When you lose the hair, chances are it will grow back within a year, but it may be white and finer than your existing hair. If you do experience widespread loss, the chances of the hair returning are not very high, although it has been known to happen. This is a very mysterious and unpredictable dermatological condition.
Having this condition is not a sign of a life-threatening disease, and most people who have it are otherwise healthy. However, persons with AA may also have a higher risk of atopic eczema, asthma, and nasal allergies, as well as other autoimmune diseases such as thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) and vitiligo.
Signs and Symptoms of Alopecia Areata
Alopecia areata usually begins with one or more round, coin-size, bare patches. It is most common on the scalp, but can involve any hair-bearing site, including eyebrows, eyelashes, and beards. Hair may fall out and regrow with the possibility of full hair regrowth always present. AA usually has no associated symptoms, but there may be minor discomfort or itching prior to developing a new patch. Nails may have tiny pinpoint dents and may rarely become distorted.
The only obvious symptom of AA is hair loss, but it can be accompanied by itching or minor discomfort just before a new patch is formed. Toenails and fingernails may indicate a problem by showing small dents that are the size of a pinpoint, or by losing their shine and becoming rough, almost like sandpaper.
Most cases of AA are easily identified by examining the scalp and asking questions about hair loss, but if your Water’s Edge Dermatology practitioner is still unsure, they will perform a scalp biopsy. They may also ask for a blood test if they’re concerned about the existence of another autoimmune disease.
Alopecia Areata Treatment Options
While treatments may promote hair growth, new patches of hair loss may continue to appear. Combinations of these treatments may add to the effectiveness although the treatments are not a cure. Only the body itself can eventually turn off the condition.
- Corticosteroids – These anti-inflammatory drugs suppress the immune system. They can be injected or rubbed into the affected areas, or given as pills, but the oral solution is less popular due to side effects.
- Topical minoxidil 5% solution – Prescribed for people of all ages, this treatment could promote hair growth within 12 weeks.
- Anthralin – This is a form of short contact therapy, meaning that it’s applied for a specified amount of time (no more than 60 minutes), then washed off.
People who have experienced widespread hair loss may also consider wearing a wig, hat, or scarf. None of these interfere with hair regrowth.