If you find yourself struggling with alopecia or hair loss, know that you are not alone. In just the United States, there are approximately 6.8 million people who have or will in their lifetime develop alopecia, with the number sitting at around 147 million globally.
It’s a common autoimmune disease that causes hair loss on our scalp and elsewhere on our body and doesn’t discriminate based on gender, age, or racial and ethnic identity. Much is still unknown by researchers about the condition and its root causes, but it’s a topic that is becoming discussed more widely in the mainstream to bring more awareness to the condition and those diagnosed.
What is alopecia?
Alopecia is a disease in which our body attacks its hair follicles, causing hair loss anywhere on our body, including our head. This hair loss can be sudden as our immune system attacks the healthy hair follicles, thus shrinking them and slowing down the production of hair growth. Alopecia is not contagious, and many who develop alopecia are healthy otherwise. However, in addition to a halt in hair product and hair loss, these individuals may also experience nail changes that can cause dents, ridges, brittle, or sometimes red nails.
There are three types of alopecia that individuals can experience:
- Alopecia areata: This type of alopecia manifests through patchy baldness (alopecia is the medical term for “bald” while areata means “patchy”), which can develop anywhere on our bodies, including our head, beard, eyebrows and eyelashes, armpits, ears, and inside of our nose.
- Alopecia totalis: This type of alopecia is when an individual loses all of the hair on their scalp, leaving their heads bald.
- Alopecia Universalis: This type of alopecia is when an individual loses all of their hair, which leaves the entire body hairless. This type, however, is quite rare.
Those who are diagnosed with alopecia have different experiences with the condition, as alopecia is often unpredictable. In some instances, hair may regrow without any additional treatment. Typically, these individuals tend to have bald patches, and when hair grows back, there is a possibility that it may fall out again. While hair can grow back in months, for others, hair regrowth can be a long, unpredictable, and sometimes cyclical process.
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What causes alopecia?
Despite being a relatively common condition, there is no known direct link to what causes alopecia, as it’s a complex condition that continues to develop. Today, there are still debates about whether the triggers that cause our immune system to attack our perfectly healthy hair follicles are internal from bacteria or viruses or if environmental factors cause it. It is also believed that our genetic makeup can also trigger this autoimmune reaction and a virus or substance that the individual may come in contact with.
Anybody can have alopecia, too. Men and women get it equally, and it can affect all racial and ethnic groups with the onset starting at any age. However, many individuals will get alopecia in their teens, twenties, or thirties. There is a higher risk of getting diagnosed with the condition if a close family member has alopecia; however, there is often no family history. You may also be more likely to get alopecia if you have other autoimmune diseases, including psoriasis, thyroid disease, vitiligo, or allergies like hay fever.
How do you treat alopecia?
Similar to other autoimmune disorders, there is no cure for alopecia. Despite the condition, your hair follicles are still alive and can produce more hair, even if it’s over a long period of time. No one treatment option works for everyone the same, and it will depend on the type of alopecia you suffer from to know what possible treatment options there are. For those with a more mild case (less than 50% hair loss) of alopecia, it’s important to block the immune system from attacking the healthy hair follicles to stimulate hair growth.
Today, alopecia is often treated with drugs used for other conditions, with treatments including corticosteroids, which are anti-inflammatory drugs. They can be given via an injection into the scalp or other areas of the body, taken orally as a pill, or applied topically as an ointment or cream. In addition, Rogaine® is another topical drug that is often used to treat pattern baldness, taking around 12 or so weeks for the hair to begin to grow. Some individuals may also take medications that treat psoriasis or topical sensitizers, which cause an allergic reaction that can stimulate hair growth when applied to the skin.