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What is alopecia?

By The Health News Team | April 7, 2022
Illustration of a woman without hair

According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, about 6.8 million people in the U.S. and 147 million people worldwide have alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal loss of hair. Although rare — the lifetime risk is just 2.1% — alopecia areata can greatly affect a person’s quality of life.

Dr. Mona Mofid, a board-certified dermatologist affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group, answers some common questions about alopecia areata.

What is alopecia areata?
Alopecia is a medical term that refers to hair loss. Alopecia areata is a condition that causes abnormal hair loss, not consistent with aging. The hair loss can be seen anywhere on the body and develops when the body attacks its own hair follicles.

There are three common types of alopecia:

  • Patchy alopecia areata, the most common type, causes patchy areas of hair loss anywhere on the body, including the scalp, beard area, eyebrows, eyelashes and armpits.

  • Alopecia totalis causes total hair loss on the scalp.

  • Alopecia universalis causes complete hair loss, including eyelashes and eyebrows, and leaves the entire body hairless.

What causes alopecia areata?
Most people who develop alopecia areata are otherwise healthy. However, it is considered an autoimmune disease. Patients with alopecia areata are often screened for other autoimmune conditions, such as thyroid issues or diabetes.

When you have alopecia areata, cells in your immune system surround and attack your hair follicles, the part of your body that makes hair. This attack on a hair follicle causes the attached hair to fall out. The more hair follicles that your immune system attacks, the more hair loss you will have.

Although alopecia can occur at any age, most people develop it during childhood or their teenage years. It is also often associated with a stressful event. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increase in alopecia diagnoses.

How is alopecia areata treated?
About half of patients see hair regrowth within 12 months without treatment. However, it is important to bring new abnormal hair loss to the attention of your health care provider to ensure there are no other medical issues contributing to the loss.

Treatment options include topical or local injections of corticosteroids along with topical minoxidil — often known by the brand name Rogaine — to accelerate hair regrowth and prevent spreading. A new group of medications called Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors have shown success in clinical studies and are being actively researched.

“Hair loss can greatly affect a person’s quality of life, and is often an unfortunate source of embarrassment,” says Dr. Mofid. “Researchers continue to study alopecia and are developing more effective treatments. This is giving new hope to patients, especially those living with widespread hair loss.”

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