Hair loss is a very personal topic—one that affects millions of people, but often goes undiscussed. The list of reasons why your hair could start to fall out is extensive, but when it does most women’s minds go straight to one thing: alopecia. The problem is most of us don’t really understand alopecia. Since the idea of losing your hair is—let’s face it—scary, and September is National Alopecia Awareness Month, it’s time we all educated ourselves on the disease that affects of 6.5 million Americans. Keep reading to find out if your hair loss is actually alopecia and what you can do about it.
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune skin disease in which the body attacks its own hair follicles, resulting in loss of hair on the scalp and occasionally other parts of the body. It affects men and women of all ages, and while other factors are involved in triggering this type of hair loss, it is primarily determined by genetics.
There are three types of alopecia areata: alopecia areata, alopecia areata totalis, and alopecia areata universalis. Alopecia areata is the most common variation. It presents itself as round, bare patches on the scalp. Alopecia areata totalis is characterized by total loss of hair on the scalp. Alopecia areata univeralis is the rarest form and it presents itself as loss of hair on the entire body.
The first sign is not just excess shedding, but loosing clumps of hair at a time. Most often, you’ll notice the first signs on your pillowcase or in the shower. The main distinction between alopecia and other types of hair loss is that with alopecia the hair loss will be patchy. You’ll see start to see one or more bare, round patches where hair once was. The patches vary in size, but most start out about the size of a coin.
So if you’ve noticed you’re losing more hair than usual, but the hair loss doesn’t seem to be localized, what else could it be? That’s harder to pinpoint. From menopause to type 2 diabetes, there are a number of conditions that cause hair loss. But more often than not, excessive shedding is temporary and can be triggered by anything from childbirth to stress.
If you’re seeing signs of the disease, see a dermatologist for the diagnosis. They may just look at your hair loss. They also might pull out a few hairs and study them. Occasionally a skin biopsy may be necessary to confirm that the disease is alopecia. If you are diagnosed, know that there is hope for regrowth. In all forms of alopecia areata, the hair follicles remain alive (but dormant) and ready to resume normal hair production whenever they receive the appropriate signal. Hair regrowth can occur even after many years without treatment.
When it comes to treatment, you have options. If you have less than 50-percent scalp hair loss, the most common treatment is cortisone injections. Your dermatologist will give you monthly injections into the skin in and around the bare patches. If the cortisone shots are successful, you’ll see new hair growth within four weeks. There’s also a topical medicine that’s used in conjunction with cortisone injections and other treatments. Five-percent minoxidil solution can be applied to the affected areas twice daily and show results in about five months. Another topical option is anthralin, a medicine that alters skin’s immune function. It’s a tar-like substance that’s applied to the bare skin for 30-to-60 minutes and then washed off daily. For alopecia with greater than 50-percent scalp hair loss, your doctor may offer other treatment options, like topical immunotherapy.
There’s also a new drug called Ruxolitinib that could be the cure to alopecia areata. It’s a drug that’s currently approved to treat bone marrow disease, but the FDA trials for its treatment of alopecia have been promising.
Have you or anyone you know struggled with alopecia? Share your story in the comments.