Alopecia areata is a form of hair loss in which hair falls out in clumps, leaving circular bald patches. In serious cases, which are very rare, it can lead to the loss of all scalp hair (alopecia totalis) or even the loss of all body hair (alopecia universalis). However, its effects can be reduced, and possibly even reversed, through dermatologic hair treatment.
Causes of Alopecia Areata
Alopecia is referred to as an autoimmune disease, in which the body stops recognizing its own tissues and instead attacks them with the same defenses it uses against invading viruses and bacteria. In this case, the target is the follicles that are responsible for hair renewal and hair growth.
It is not contagious, and is primarily a hereditary disease. People who have other autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, asthma or allergies are at a higher risk of developing alopecia.
Effects of Alopecia Areata
Alopecia areata can affect any place on the body where hair grows but usually strikes the scalp or beard. Hair renewal stops in the affected area, and the existing hair becomes loose and eventually falls out. The exposed skin may itch or burn slightly. Sometimes "exclamation mark" hairs form around the edge of the affected area. These are hairs that are thick at the bottom but thinner at the top.
It can also affect the nails, causing them to develop white spots, pits, and/or dents. In severe cases, it can cause the nails to change shape or color, or even fall off.
Hair Loss Treatment
There is no cure for alopecia areata. However, its effects may be reversible. In some cases, the hair follicles themselves die and the hair loss is permanent. However, if the follicles survive, the hair will eventually regrow. A dermatologist can prescribe treatments to speed up hair growth.
The exact kind of hair treatment will vary depending on the individual patient. Many dermatologists prefer to try several different methods in order to encourage growth. The most common treatment is corticosteroids to reduce the immune system's overactivity. These can be delivered by injections, pills, or topical creams. In the case of injections, the most effective form, most patients will require 3-6 weeks of injections, with regrowth usually beginning a month after the last injection.
Once the hair has regrown, alopecia may strike again. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict whether or not a patient may be affected again in the future.