What Is Alopecia Areata?
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease where the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks the hair follicles from which hair grows. In most cases, the hair falls out in small, round patches about the size of a quarter. In rare cases, alopecia areaeta can cause more extensive hair loss on the head, face and body. The impact on a person’s appearance can be a source of emotional stress.
How it forms: Genetics may predispose some people to the disease. Alopecia areata affects both genders of all ages and ethnic backgrounds and often begins in childhood. It may be caused by a trigger, such as a virus or something in the environment, that causes the immune system to attack the hair follicles. The follicles shrink and slow down hair production. However, it’s possible for the hair to regrow, as the stem cells that supply the follicle with new cells do not seem to be targeted.
Prevention: The course of alopecia areata is unpredictable and there is no clear prevention. Hair may or may not grow back and patches that regrow may subsequently lose hair again. The condition may last for many years or not recur after initial hair loss in a few patches. When hair regrows, it may come in white, but usually returns to the original color. Keep exposed patches covered with sunscreen and sun-protective clothing (scarves, sunglasses, hats).
Treatment: There is neither a cure for alopecia areata nor drugs approved for its treatment. However there are treatments that can help restimulate hair growth, even if they don’t actually prevent the appearance of new patches. Common treatments include:
- Corticosteroids (injections, oral, topical) may be given to help suppress the immune system
- Rogaine (minoxidil) applied topically promotes hair growth and is FDA-approved for male and female pattern hair loss
- Anthralin applied topically for 20-60 minutes (“short-contact therapy”) is a synthetic tar-like substance that alters immune function of the affected skin
- Sulfasalazine taken orally for patients with severe alopecia areata acts on the immune system.
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