If you have never heard of the term “alopecia”, then chances are you have no idea what it means. You might be surprised to know then that “alopecia” is the medical term for hair loss.
What is alopecia?
It’s a condition that causes individuals to lose hair from a single place or multiple areas on their body (including the face and head). There are many different types of alopecia, along with several available treatments.
However, scientists are still unsure regarding what specifically causes alopecia, primarily because there are so many factors involved (genetics, environmental etc.). Having said this, it is certainly worth knowing more about this condition, especially if you are concerned that you might be afflicted with it one day.
Different types of alopecia
As outlined before, there are several different types of alopecia. The following are the most common forms:
- Alopecia areata
- Male pattern baldness
- Female pattern baldness
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease whereby the immune system begins to attack hair follicles. It is a condition that can affect adults as well as children. People with the condition often notice small patches of hair loss begin to form on their scalp. Often, these patches grow quite quickly. Whilst the hair will usually grow back, it can take many months.
Alopecia is different to conventional baldness in the sense that it can affect hair all over someone’s body. In fact, it can cause hair loss on someone’s face, including beard, eyelashes and eyebrows. Even nostril hairs have been known to fall out. The more damaging your hair loss is, the less likely it is to grow back.
Male pattern baldness
On the other hand, male pattern baldness is a condition where your hair follicles are affected negatively by hormones. Because of this sensitivity, the hair ceases to grow. Male pattern baldness is not passed down generations via the “baldness” gene – this is because the baldness gene is actually passed down via the mother’s side. In fact, it is a complex “polygenic” trait, made up of multiple genes.
In most cases, the hair begins to recede from the forehead, causing the hair on top to begin thinning. A lot of men end up with a “horseshoe” head of hair, while other men lose all the hair completely.
Female pattern baldness
The direct cause of female pattern baldness is far less clear. While it can likely be attributed to hormone sensitivity, it is also likely that environmental factors are part of the cause as well.
Breaking down the cause of alopecia
Alopecia occurs when white blood cells begin attacking the hair follicles. By attacking the hair follicles, hair production is dramatically slowed. Scientists are still unsure as to why the body’s immune system begins to target hair follicles specifically in this manner.
However, there is evidence that genetics do come into consideration when assessing the causes of alopecia. This is because studies have revealed that alopecia is more likely to occur in a person who has a close family member with alopecia. To put this in perspective, one in five people with the disease have a direct family relative with the disease.
A strong family history of autoimmune diseases has also been linked to the onset of alopecia. Disorders like vitiligo and thyroiditis are such examples. While stress and extreme anxiety have been touted as possible causes, there is very little scientific evidence to confirm this. While cases of extreme stress could possible trigger or exacerbate the condition, the most current research would suggest that genetic factors are the most likely cause.
Noticing the symptoms
The most obvious symptom of alopecia is patchy hair loss. At the beginning, you might notice small coin-sized patches of hair receding or falling out. This hair loss can be quite sudden or very gradual (it changes from case to case). Some individuals have even complained of an itching or burning sensation when the patches are forming. You might also notice a gradual thinning on top of the scalp, followed by very slow re-growth of hair (or not at all).
You might also notice that your hair structure changes significantly. Known as “exclamation point” hairs, this refers to when the hair begins to lose its structure and shape at the base, near the hair follicle. During this stage, the hair begins to narrow and weaken, causing it to break away from the scalp.
Because alopecia is a skin condition, it isn’t just the scalp or hair follicles that are affected. In fact, alopecia can affect a person’s fingernails and toenails. Indeed, some people notice small dents in their nails or white spots/lines on the surface of the nail. Some people with alopecia complain that their nails become rough or lose their shine, even before they begin losing their hair.
Stages of alopecia
Approximately 30% of individuals find that the condition worsens over time or becomes a continual cycle of rapid hair loss and extremely slow regrowth. While 50% of cases generally recover within 1 year, the chances of recurrence are extremely high. Many patients often experience more than one episode of the disease, while around 10% of people will develop alopecia totalis or universalis. Alopecia totalis is a skin condition where the scalp is completely bald (as opposed to just localised patches), while alopecia universalis is the complete loss of hair on both the scalp and the entire body. Alopecia universalis is the most advanced form of the condition.
Diagnosing alopecia is generally a straightforward process. Simply visit your local general practitioner and they can write you a prescription to see a skin specialist. The dermatologist will examine your physical symptoms (scalp, eyebrows, nails etc.), before diagnosing the condition.
However, there is a chance the doctor will be unable to reach a concrete diagnosis. If this does occur, your doctor will organise a skin biopsy and possibly a blood test. The blood test is to make sure that there aren’t any other autoimmune diseases causing your hair loss. Having said this, a skin biopsy and blood test are usually not necessary because the symptoms of alopecia are so distinctive.
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for alopecia areata. Nonetheless, there are several forms of treatment that can help regrow hair at a faster rate, like this shampoo for hair loss..
Using corticosteroids is the most common medication to treat alopecia. Corticosteroids are powerful, anti-inflammatory drugs that are designed to suppress the immune system. These drugs can be administered through local injections, via topical ointment applications or even taken orally.
Hair growth medications
Your doctor may prescribe a range of hair regrowth medications, such as DPCP, Minoxidil or Anthralin. While these medications can help regrow your hair, they cannot prevent the onset of new bald patches. Finasteride is also a highly regarded medication that has proven success in regrowing hair. It is also used to treat erectile dysfunction and sexual impotence.
If your hair loss has become extensive, topical immunotherapy is a valid course of action. This is where chemicals are applied to the scalp to stimulate an allergic reaction. If the chemical treatment proves effective, hair regrowth should occur. Having said this, there are several side effects related to this treatment, such as an itchy rash on the scalp. Often, the treatment needs to be administered several times to ensure the new hair growth is retained.
Living with alopecia
Living with this condition can be very difficult at times. Alopecia does not make a person sick, nor is it contagious of course. However, it can be a difficult thing to deal with emotionally. Losing your hair on your head and face can alter your appearance, making you feel vulnerable and self-conscious.
If you have recently be diagnosed with alopecia, it is important to reach out to those around you for support. Your doctor may recommend seeing a counsellor or a therapist to help you deal with the condition. It’s always important to remember that there are worse things in life than losing your hair.
If you are not sure where to go for help and assistance, a good place to start is The Australian Alopecia Areata Foundation. They provide helpful material on the disease, treatment options, ways of coping and a wide variety of support groups.
Minimise your stress
While the connection between stress and alopecia is somewhat ambiguous, there is still value in reducing your stress levels. Personal troubles and consistently high stress levels can possibly exacerbate your hair loss if you are suffering from alopecia.
Permanent hair loss
If your doctor believes that your hair loss will remain permanent, do not be alarmed. There are several things you can do to improve your appearance. You could consider using a hair piece, especially if you are completely bald. You can also get your eyebrows tattooed if you want to cover up the bald patches. Alternatively, if your hair is slowly thinning on top, consider cutting your hair to a shorter length and picking styles that disguise your baldness.
Continue to take care of your scalp
It’s very important that you continue to take care of your scalp – even if the hair is no longer there. While there is the aesthetic part of balding, your hair is also meant to protect your scalp. As a result, you’ll want to make sure that you are applying sunscreen to your scalp on hot, sunny days or wearing a hat at the very least.
You should also consider wearing wraparound glasses to protect your eyes from the sun because your eyes may not be fully protected if you have lost your eyelashes and eyebrow hair. Your eyelashes usually protect your eyes from unwanted debris. During winter, consider wearing headwear, like scarves and beanies, to keep your head and scalp warm. If you notice the skin is drying out, simply apply moisturiser.
Unknown facts about alopecia
Alopecia affects over 6.8 million people in the United States. Globally, there are over 147 million people with the disease. While it often appears during childhood, some people don’t develop symptoms until adulthood.
Alopecia is also known as a “polygenic disease” or multi-gene trait. What does this mean? Well, it means that it is not a “single-gene” disease. In fact, both parents contribute to the onset of the disease via several specific genes in order for the child to develop the condition. This is one of the major reasons why it is such a rare condition.
Identical twins, who share all the same genes, only have a 55% chance of contracting the condition if one of the twins has it. Because of this, scientists are adamant that genetics is not the only cause of alopecia.
Celebrities with alopecia
Despite the rarity of the condition, there are still many well-known celebs who battle alopecia. Matt Lucas, a British comedian and actor, developed the condition well before he became a celebrity. Lucas reportedly lost all his hair when he was just six years old. While doctors attributed his hair loss to a car accident two years prior, it was later discovered that it was alopecia. Instead of being despondent and sad about the condition, Lucas believes it helped his career and has formed a big part of his acting identity.
Anthony Carrigan, an American actor well known for his supporting role in the HBO black comedy “Barry”, has had the condition since he was a small child. Like Lucas, however, Carrigan has embraced his condition and incorporated into his career, often playing television/movie villains.
At the end of the day, there is no doubt that developing alopecia can be a traumatic event. Many people pride themselves on their hair and view it as part of their identity. The prospect of losing your hair can be a real blow to one’s self-esteem and level of confidence.
Having said this, there are clearly many ways you can deal with condition. It’s important to protect your scalp and to realise that you are still the same person, even though your visual appearance may have changed. If you are considering treatment options, make sure you get in touch with your local GP or a doctor you trust.