Can you imagine waking up one morning with clumps of hair on your pillow? Subsequently, you learn you have a condition called alopecia areata, a type of hair loss. You are scared, depressed, and angry, and you think you are somehow at fault. You're tormented by the thought that you might be without hair for the rest of your life. Rest assured you are not alone, and there is plenty of help available and reason to hope.
What Is Alopecia Areata?
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that causes your immune system to attack the hair follicles, resulting in hair loss. According to the National Alopecia Areata Society, more than 4.5 million people in the United States will get alopecia some time their lives. It affects men and women in equal numbers, and is more common in children than adults.
Hair loss usually occurs in several small patches on the scalp, although it can occur anywhere on the body. This is called alopecia areata. If hair loss on the scalp is extensive, or even complete, it is called alopecia totalis. When hair loss completely destroys all body hair, it is called alopecia universalis. Although the follicles are not producing hair, they are not dead and can wake up at any time and start growing hair again, with or without treatment.
WebMd, says that about 10% of people with alopecia will never regrow their hair. This is more likely to happen if you:
- Have a family history of the condition
- Get the first attack before puberty
- Have finger nails with an abnormal color or shape
- Have another autoimmune disease
Alopecia has such a unique appearance that often a dermatologist can diagnose it just by looking at the bald patches. In addition, he or she may look at hairs under the microscope or do a skin biopsy to confirm the condition. Blood tests can also be performed to rule out other conditions.
Alopecia areata cannot be cured, but it can be treated. Your dermatologist will likely try corticosteroids as the first treatment. The steroid is injected into the bald spots in a series of shots to suppress the immune system. If it's going to work, hair will begin to regrow about 4 weeks after the last treatment.
In cases where hair loss is not complete, a topical minoxidil solution may help to regrow hair. Minoxidil is safe, easy to use, and can be stopped if and when hair regrows.
If those treatments don't work, your dermatologist may use anthralin cream. It is rubbed onto the bare patches and washed off in 30 minutes. Any new hair growth will be visible in 8 to 12 weeks. Anthralin can irritate the skin; however, using short treatment times can minimize the irritation.
Coping with Alopecia Areata
Although alopecia is not life threatening, it can have a devastating effect on the sufferer. No two experiences are the same, but there are some feelings and reactions that are common to many.
- Feelings of isolation
- Fear that others may find out you're wearing a wig
- Guilt that you may have done something to cause the disease
The disease also affects the family members of the patient. Parents may feel guilty that they somehow contributed to its onset and feel frustrated that they can't help. Siblings may feel anger or resentment because the condition has also affected their lives.
Some sufferers of alopecia can overcome the emotional devastation through their own inner fortitude and the support of family and friends. Professional counseling can help with confidence and coping skills, and group therapy with other alopecia sufferers can help patients not feel so isolated and alone.