Alopecia Areata

What is alopecia areata?

Alopecia areata is a hair disease. If you have alopecia areata, you will find that your hair falls out in little patches. Why this is happening to your hair is because your immune system is attacking your hair follicles. Your hair grows from your hair follicles. So, your hair keeps falling out and before you know it, you have got no more hairs on some parts of your scalp or other parts of your body where the hairs have been falling out from.  When you have a complete hair loss in your scalp for instance, it is called alopecia universalis. But it seems not to be common.

When your hairs fall out, they can grow again. The same way they can grow again, they can also fall out again. So it means you might hardly have hair grow again in that affected part.

I’m sad because alopecia areata is yet to have a cure. That means you might not have your hair grow again. But let’s believe the best anyways because of the treatments that have been found to be very helpful in getting your hair to grow again quickly! With continuous use of these treatments, you can be assured of your hair staying intact.

Symptoms of alopecia areata

Hair loss is the primary symptom of alopecia areata. The hair loss is gradual and it can occur on the scalp in small patches that are about a few centimeters or less. Hair loss is not exclusive to your scalp alone: it can be experienced in other areas of your body. If you are as observant as I am, you will observe hair clumps either on your pillow when you just wake up or in the shower especially if you haven’t had a shave lately. That might be a symptom that you have alopecia areata. But mind you, don’t be quick to conclude you have alopecia areata until you have seen your doctor. This is because alopecia areata is not the only disorder that can make your hairs fall out: other conditions can. It, therefore, tells you that hair loss alone is not the valid proof that you have alopecia areata.

If you experience an extensive hair loss, it might be that you have another variant of alopecia. It is either you have alopecia totalis or alopecia universalis. In alopecia totalis, all the hair on your scalp will go on permanent vacation! If it is alopecia universalis that you have instead, you won’t have a single hair left on your entire body. That’s no good news you know.

You can’t predict your hair loss if you have alopecia areata. It can occur randomly. Your hair can fall out, grow again and then fall out. Your hair might not grow again but the same hair can grow back in some other persons.

Alopecia areata
Photo Credit: Yale Medicine

What causes alopecia areata?

Alopecia areata has an autoimmune undertone. Hence, you can conclude that it is an autoimmune disease. Your immune system can be very funny at times when it mistakes your body cells for foreign bodies. That’s exactly what happens to your hair follicles. They are marked by your immune system as a strange body. And when your immune system ‘calls’ something foreign, they will make sure they get rid of that ‘foreign’ body by all means. They will do so because they are your body’s defense ‘soldiers’. When your immune system starts ‘fighting’ your hair follicles, they will start reducing in size. Like I earlier mentioned, your hair grows from your hair follicles. When the hair follicles have been reduced to nothing, your hair won’t be able to grow again because they no longer have some place to grow from. That is the simple explanation of why your hair has been falling out.

As I write this article, reasons have not yet been found for your immune system’s ‘behavior’ towards your hair follicle. But there are some indicators that alopecia areata runs in families. But I don’t know how many meters or kilometers it runs at! If you have a family history of rheumatoid arthritis or type 1 diabetes, you might be ‘in’ for alopecia areata someday if you don’t have it already! These two conditions are autoimmune disorders. Because of the familial relationship that can cause alopecia areata, scientists think that the condition has some alliance with certain genes. Going further from family history, it has also been discovered that you need some environmental factors to trigger alopecia areata’s development.

How is alopecia areata diagnosed?

To diagnose you of alopecia areata, your symptoms will have to be reviewed by your doctor. Your hair will be examined closely to determine the extent of loss. Some of your hair samples will also be examined microscopically. If your doctor is not satisfied with the results, more tests will be ordered on you. One of such tests is a scalp biopsy where some skin from your scalp will be extracted for analysis. Tinea capitis, a fungal infection, is another disorder that can make your hair to fall out. A scalp biopsy will eventually reveal which is causing your hair loss.

If your doctor thinks that you have some other autoimmune diseases other than alopecia areata, a blood test for abnormal antibodies will be done on you. The blood test will be based on the autoimmune disease your doctor supposes.

The following blood tests can help your doctor validate your condition:

How is alopecia areata treated?

For now, alopecia areata has no cure.

But the good side to it is that it can be managed. Management includes causing your hair to grow again quickly and to prevent its subsequent loss.

Medical Treatment

Minoxidil (Rogaine) is one medication that can perform wonder on you when rubbed on your scalp.

Steroid injections, phototherapy, ointments and corticosteroid creams are other treatment approaches to alopecia areata. In photochemotherapy, ultraviolet radiation is used with oral mediactions to promote hair growth.

Alternative Therapies

You can have access to the following alternative treatments to your condition although most of them haven’t been clinically tested yet:

  • acupuncture
  • vitamins
  • aromatherapy
  • herbal supplements

You can do the following to minimize any discomfort you might be having as a result of alopecia areata:

  • use sunscreens to protect parts of your body exposed to the sun to prevent sunburn in those areas
  • wear sunglasses whenever you are in the sun to protect your eyes from dusts and sun rays especially if your eyelashes have been lost
  • wear a scarf, hat or wig when in the sun

If your hair grows back without treatments, that’s fine. But if it has refused to grow back without treatment, that’s the more reason you need treatment if not treatments! But mind you, you can use all the available treatments and still not have your hair back: it shouldn’t affect your self-esteem! But if your hair grows back, still put at the back of your mind that it may not last forever.

How to cope with alopecia areata

I can feel your emotional pains because of your hair loss especially when you can barely see some reasonable hair on your scalp. Not to worry. I don’t want you to feel bad. Neither do I want to hear that you are beginning to isolate yourself. Don’t be depressed. As much as your hair is important to you and how you look, you are more important to me and indeed every other person, your hair loss notwithstanding.

You might consider talking to a counselor or being part of a support group. This shows to you that I am not the only one having you at heart. You should check this foundation out – National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF). They have support groups in different parts of the US. They have meeting days, too. You can join their conferences and receive support messages online when you hook up with them.  And if you are not in the US, you can find out local supporting groups where you are.

If your hair loss has become a great concern to you, you can use a scarf, wig or a hat. There are hair-colored creams and powders that can make your hair loss appear insignificant. You can get them and apply on your scalp. If your eyebrows have fallen out, you can use eye pencils to mask them. But in all of these, I want you to know that you are not alone.

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