September is designated Alopecia Awareness Month by the National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF). The purpose of this post is to inform the reader about alopecia areata, a common form of hair loss that affects over 6 million Americans.
Alopecia areata (AA) is an autoimmune type of hair loss due to unknown causes. In this condition the body’s own immune system starts to attack, but not destroy, the hair follicles. The fact that the follicles are not destroyed is key in this condition; as long as the follicles are present there is still hope to achieve hair regrowth. AA leads to shedding of the hair in typical circular patterns that reveal a smooth, symptom-free scalp below. These patches may coalesce and lead to large swaths of hair loss. In some patients the hair loss involves the eyebrows, eye lashes, and the body hair. Most patients with AA develop only a few patches of hair loss. Many AA patients are children for whom the hair loss comes at a particularly emotionally vulnerable age. Frequently AA resolves just as mysteriously as it appeared. Sometimes AA will reoccur at a later date; the most frequent trigger cited by patients for the recurrence is stress.
A board-certified dermatologist is the only medical specialist with the training and expertise to treat AA. Any patients, particularly pediatric patients, should seek immediate care with a dermatologist. Treatment for mild cases will usually involve steroid injections into the affected area. More severe cases should be treated with a technique called topical immunotherapy where a medication is applied to the scalp in an effort to change the types of immune cells present around the hair follicle thus allowing for lasting hair regrowth. Although not all cases can be successfully treated, in my practice, 90% of patients are able to achieve significant, lasting hair growth.
If you think you or a loved one suffers from alopecia areata, please see a board-certified dermatologist as soon as possible to receive accurate diagnosis and discuss potential treatment options. The National Alopecia Areata Foundation is an excellent source of educational and support resources for patients who are dealing with alopecia areata.