What is Alopecia?
Alopecia areata is a common autoimmune condition that often results in unpredictable hair loss, and affects approximately 6.8 people in the United States. Hair loss as a result of this condition is different from natural hair loss due to the aging process. Alopecia can affect anyone regardless of age and gender; although usually this disorder presents itself before the age of 30. Another difference from natural hair loss is that with alopecia hair loss is patchy and looks about the size of a quarter. Mainly hair loss occurs on the scalp; however any site of hair growth can be affected (such as eyelashes, eyebrows or beards). In rare cases complete hair loss can occur on the scalp (alopecia totalis) or, in extreme cases, hair loss can happen all over the body (alopecia universalis).
What are the Early Warning Signs?
Early warning signs can include:
Gradual thinning on top of head. This is the most common type of hair loss, affecting both men and women as they age;
Circular or patchy bald spots;
Sudden loosening of hair;
Full-body hair loss; and
Patches of scaling that spread over the scalp.
Alopecia areata can sometimes be associated with thyroid disease, anemia, vitiligo (loss of skin pigmentation), and other skin diseases. When seeing your dermatologist, make sure to note any changes to your nails, as your nails may also require treatment to keep from worsening and causing pain or interference with activities such as typing or playing an instrument.
What is the Best Treatment for Alopecia?
There is currently no cure for this condition. Although there are currently no treatments that work for everyone with alopecia areata, some treatments are effective for some people. Depending on which type of alopecia you have, your age and the extent of hair loss, there are a variety of treatment options available. The main goals of treatment are to block the immune system attack and/or stimulate the re-growth of hair. This can be effective, especially for people with milder forms of the disorder (less than 50% hair loss).
The most common treatment is the use of corticosteroids; these are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that can suppress the immune system. Corticosteroids are mostly administered by local injections, applying as a topical ointment, or taken orally. There are other medications that can help with re-growth of hair and build up the immune system; however they cannot prevent recurrence of your symptoms.
A dermatologist can determine the treatments best suited to help you. It’s important to understand that a wait-and-see approach may be recommended, as it’s possible that your hair will re-grow on its own.
Dermatologists are also equipped with loads of self-care tips that can be particularly helpful if you lose your eyelashes, eyebrows, the hair inside your ears, or hair on other areas of your body.
There are lots of things you can do to help increase your comfort levels when living with this autoimmune disorder. Firstly, be sure to protect affected areas from cold temperatures with hats and scarves. Hair loss on the scalp, inner ears and inside the nose can make your body extremely sensitive to cold. Wearing false eyelashes and finding ways to fill in your brows with either stick-on eyebrow products, eye brow pencils and pomade can go a long way to making you feel more comfortable in your own skin.
Treatments that are naturopathic by nature have also been shown to help people with their symptoms. Aromatherapy, acupuncture, essential oils, restrictive diets have all been tried and tested, however these types of treatments are not studied in clinical trials and so their true effectiveness is somewhat unknown. Patients have also noted stress as a factor in worsening symptoms. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating alopecia. Some people won’t require any treatment and their hair grows back on its own, others will try multiple remedies before seeing any result or increased comfort with their symptoms.
What Can You Do?
Alopecia is a poorly understood condition, but treatment can be helpful. Many patients will completely re-grow all of their hair. Unfortunately, some patients can progress to total hair loss. It is always best to have your symptoms looked at right away to determine the best treatment plan. If you are concerned you may be affected by alopecia, please schedule with one of our specialists for an examination and consultation. This condition does not make people sick and is not contagious.
If you’re looking for some extra support and to connect with others that have this condition, the National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF) is a great resource for mentorship and support. NAFF has lots of online resources including news, research articles and medical advice for those with alopecia areata. NAFF also hosts information about clinical trials and the requirements to join each study of this nature.
The dermatologists and clinical staff at Idaho Skin Institute are dedicated to providing a high standard of excellence in their care, and have experience working with patients suffering from the various types of alopecia. If you are experiencing symptoms you think might be related to a condition such as this, or if you’ve been previously diagnosed and are looking for a second opinion or alternative care options, you can expect a genuine and personalized consultation where you can examine all of the treatment options specific to your symptoms and type of alopecia. Come on in to the clinic anytime or give us a call to schedule an appointment with one of our skin specialists.