What is Alopecia?

Following comments at the Oscars this week from comedian Chris Rock on Jada Pinkett Smiths haircut and Will Smith’s subsequent slap, more people than ever have been curious to learn more about Alopecia, its symptoms and what causes it.

Regardless of which side of the Will Smith vs Chris Rock debate you fall on, let’s find out more about What is Alopecia and answer all of your Alopecia questions.

alopecia bald head

What is Alopecia?

Alopecia areata (literally meaning ‘hair loss in areas’) is a medical condition that causes specific spots of baldness to randomly appear on your scalp.

These spots are usually circular, and they are usually about the size of a coin, although each one can be larger.

It is widely accepted that Alopecia areata is considered to be an autoimmune disorder.

Alopecia areata can even affect the hair on other areas of your body too, such as eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair, as well as affecting beard hair in men.

In rare cases, alopecia areata can lead to a complete loss of scalp hair (called alopecia totalis) or a universal loss of hair over your entire body (called alopecia universalis).

what is alopecia

What are the Symptoms of Alopecia Areata?

The main diagnostic feature of alopecia areata is the presence of bald patches, which are usually circular, and can range in size from a few millimetres to several centimetres or more. .

bald spots in hair alopecia

In the active stage, these bald patches are surrounded by little ‘exclamation mark hairs’, which are thicker at the top and taper to a thinner end at the root. They are visible to the naked eye, but are best identified by a specialist, such as a Trichologist or GP.

Alopecia areata causes inflammation at the lower end of your hair follicle. This is not painful, and you are unlikely to notice it, however, some people with alopecia do report itching, tingling or burning in the area before the formation of a hair-loss patch.

hair loss alopecia

What Causes Alopecia Areata?

Alopecia areata is widely accepted to be an autoimmune disorder, where your body sees certain hair cells as foreign enemies and attacks them.

What triggers this response is not entirely understood, but many cases are associated with stress, shock, bereavement, illness, or an accident.

There is also often a genetic predisposition for alopecia areata. There are, in fact, many reported cases of alopecia areata occurring in twins.

Alopecia areata is more common in people who suffer from other autoimmune conditions including the following

  • Eczema
  • Addison’s disease
  • Pernicious Anaemia
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Lichen Planus
  • Diabetes Mellitus
  • Vitiligo
  • Lupus
  • Thyroid Disease
diagnosis alopecia

Will My Hair Grow Back if I have Alopecia?

Alopecia areata is an unpredictable condition. The good news is that up to 50% of people affected find that their hair grows back spontaneously within a year.

However, some people do not see an improvement. It is also common for episodes of alopecia areata to recur in those who have experienced it.

Rarely, alopecia areata may progress to a complete loss of scalp hair (alopecia totalis) or a universal loss of hair over your entire body (alopecia universalis). In these cases it is, unfortunately, very uncommon to experience a full regrowth of hair.

What are the Treatments for Alopecia Areata?

In up to 50% of cases, alopecia areata spontaneously resolves itself within a year.

There are also several treatments available that may help bring about remission and encourage your hair to grow back. However, there is currently no cure for alopecia areata, and symptoms can recur. Unfortunately, it is not possible to predict when or where this will happen.

The treatments listed below can have good success rates — but, with such an unpredictable condition, doctors can never guarantee results.

If you are suffering from alopecia, your Trichologist will discuss all the options with you before deciding on a course of action.

Trichologists are specialists who deal in matters of the hair, and the scalp.

Ultra-violet Rays

UV treatment, or phototherapy, works by increasing inflammation at the affected site, in the hope that this will trick your body into recognising your hair follicles as ‘friendly’ cells so it stops attacking them.

The use of UV rays is carefully monitored by your Trichologist and is given in safe, small doses, which are far lower than you would experience, for example, by visiting a sun-bed.

Only a limited number of UV treatments can be administered per person over a lifetime, and you must stay well within these boundaries.

Stress Management

Alopecia areata is linked to stress. So you can take a holistic approach to hair care, and consider stress management an important part of any alopecia areata treatment plan.

During Consultations, your Trichologists should be happy to discuss hair-healthy lifestyle choices to help you out.

To reduce stress, you can look at your overall lifestyle, try journaling, meditation, and eating healthy. Although these things will not magically cure your alopecia, it can’t hurt and will have a positive impact on your overall well being.

Steroids

Steroids work by decreasing inflammation, and reducing the activity of your immune system to stop it attacking your hair follicles. Steroids can be used to help treat alopecia areata either through injections, or creams and gels that are applied topically to your skin.

Corticosteroid Injections

Corticosteroid injections are administered by a GP or dermatologist every few weeks, and can be used to treat bald areas on your scalp, eyebrows and body.

These work by suppressing your body’s immune system, so that it no longer attacks your hair follicles.

Side effects may include pain at the injection site and thinning of the skin.

alopecia hair injections

Topical corticosteroids

Topical corticosteroids (creams and gels applied to your skin) work in the same way as steroid injections, but they are neither as strong, nor as targeted.

These creams and gels are available on prescription from your GP (weaker strengths are available over-the-counter, but Philip Kingsley Trichologists do not recommend you use them without consulting your doctor).

They are applied daily to the affected scalp areas. Topical creams and gels include:

  • betamethasone
  • hydrocortisone
  • mometasone.

Side effects may include acne and thinning of the skin, so be aware before using any medications like this.

We hope this guide to Alopecia, and some of the Alopecia treatments was useful.

Information courtesy of Glenn Lyons, Clinical Director at Philip Kingsley

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