Alopecia Areata: What Causes It & How Can You Treat It?

Aug. 28, 2020
Losing hair is often upsetting and concerning, no matter your age, and can be caused by several physical or mental health issues besides the process of aging. One notable cause of hair loss is alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition caused by an abnormality in the immune system. 
What is Alopecia Areata?
Alopecia areata is a condition where the sufferer experiences sudden hair loss that usually occurs in circular bald batches. It can be an extremely upsetting condition, but it is usually a symptom of a bigger problem. 
What Causes Alopecia Areata?  
Alopecia areata occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the hair follicles and kills them, leading to hair loss. 
Alopecia is, unfortunately, a mystifying condition, and researchers are still unsure about the exact cause of it. We do know that alopecia is common among those predisposed to other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis. Despite this genetic element, parents with alopecia don’t always pass it on to their children. 
Alopecia generally occurs more commonly in women, but the volume of hair that is lost is typically more significant with men. Alopecia and male- or female-pattern baldness, are often compared, but alopecia causes hair to fall out in patches rather than overall thinning and eventual hair loss. 
There are several different types of alopecia: 
  • alopecia areata occurs when coin-sized patches of hair fall out sporadically 
  • alopecia totalis, where the entire scalp of hair is lost
  • alopecia universalis where all hair across the entire body is lost
  • diffuse alopecia areata which results in sudden thinning over the entire scalp
  • and ophiasis alopecia, where hair loss follows a pattern along the sides and lower back of the scalp.
What Does Hair Loss Caused by Alopecia Areata Look Like?
Hair loss caused by alopecia areata typically tends to occur in patches. It’s usually not until these patches connect that the hair loss becomes particularly noticeable. 
Those suffering from alopecia may experience sudden hair loss on the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, and face. Alopecia can also develop gradually and recur after years between bouts.
This condition can result in alopecia universalis, in which hair is lost entirely and is often prevented from growing back at all. The loss and regrowth of hair varies from person to person, and each case is unique. Some people won’t require any treatment for alopecia because their hair will grow back, whereas others may need to try a number of techniques to encourage hair growth.
While there is currently no known cure for alopecia, there are ways to slow down current hair loss and encourage hair to grow back in the future. 
How to Treat Alopecia 
If you believe you have alopecia, you should always consult your doctor and/or dermatologist to determine the cause and the correct course of treatment for you. You may need further tests, or you may be able to make an assumption to what the cause is, so you can work on relieving the symptoms of alopecia. Some of the treatments commonly used are: 
  • Injections
  • For those with mild or patchy alopecia areata, steroid injections can be applied to encourage hair to grow back on bald spots. Tiny needles inject the steroid into the affected areas every month or two.
  • Topical agents
    • Minoxidil (officially known as Rogaine) is available over the counter, and you can apply it twice a day to your scalp, eyebrows, and beard if necessary. This has been proven to be a safe and effective treatment, but it can take up to a year to see any notable results.
    • A slightly less predictable technique is topical immunotherapy, where a chemical such as diphencyprone is applied to the scalp to bring about an allergic reaction. A rash resembling poison oak will form and may encourage new hair growth within six months. Just as with Rogaine, this treatment must be used continuously to see any regrowth. 
    • Another drug that irritates the scalp enough to encourage regrowth is Anthralin or Dritho-Scalp.
    • Those with alopecia often use corticosteroid creams like clobetasol (Impoyz), ointments, foams and lotions as they decrease inflammation in the hair follicle.
  • Alternative treatments
  • It’s not uncommon for people with illnesses that affect their skin or hair growth to be apprehensive about applying more chemicals to their scalp. From aromatherapy and acupuncture to stimulate the immune system to the simple application of rosemary, peppermint, tea tree or lavender oils, there are plenty of options. Some people choose to follow an anti-inflammatory diet that is fairly restrictive and consists primarily of vegetables and meats. Some take vitamins such as biotin or zinc, and some experiment with juices and herbal supplements.
  • Make some lifestyle changes 
  • When working with your doctor or dermatologist, you may realize that your lifestyle is not currently a healthy one. You may be under extreme stress, physically, mentally, or both, and need to consider taking a step back to decide whether this lifestyle is really the right one for you. If you are experiencing alopecia, taking some time to relax and recuperate and eat more nutritious whole foods may be the best way to get your body back on track. 
    Alopecia areata isn’t a simple condition to fix because it can be caused by so many different things, and there’s no one pill you can take to fix it. Rest assured, however, knowing that your doctor and/or dermatologist will be able to work with you to find a suitable treatment to help relieve or hide the symptoms. In most cases, it resolves itself within a few months, and this can certainly be sped up with some of the treatments listed above. 
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