Alopecia areata is a skin condition which occurs as a result of our immune system mistakenly attacking our own healthy tissues. This creates a condition called autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune disease can present itself in different ways, depending on which body part is affected. When the immune system damages the hair follicles the result is hair loss.
One or more bald patches appear on the scalp. These patches are usually round in shape and the size of a large coin. Occasionally the beard, eyebrows, eyelashes or other body hair are also affected.
Alopecia areata can occur at any age. However it usually affects children, teenagers and young adults. Research shows that the first attack of this disease usually happens before the age of 30.
The Effect Of Alopecia Areata
There is no scarring or physical pain associated with the condition, and the affected hair follicles are not destroyed. Often as one patch is regrowing another patch is appearing. Apart from the bald patches the scalp usually has a healthy appearance.
Occasionally, there may be a slight redness, and a mild burning or itching feeling. The size of the bald patches and the time they last are variable.
The condition can be embarrassing and very upsetting. The stress, especially on young boys, unable to hide the condition because of short hair, is severe.
Surveys have found the suicide rate among these young sufferers higher than would be expected. This is especially tragic, considering the disease affects the appearance rather than physical health.
Treatment For Alopecia Areata
When there are only one or two small bald patches, no treatment is the common option. Bald patches in mild cases often regrow hair in a matter of months. When less than half of the scalp Is affected, doctors’ advice is usually to wait and see.
The chances of hair regrowth within one year, without treatment, for this group is 8 out of 10. One or more recurrences of alopecia areata is common for sufferers. This is the case even if full regrowth of hair occurs after the first episode.
When complete baldness is the result of autoimmune disease, it is called alopecia areata totalis. When the same condition causes the loss of all head hair, together with all body hair, it is called alopecia areata universalis. These types of hair loss tend to be long lasting, even permanent.
However, with the uncertainty of this disease there is no way of predicting if the hair loss will be temporary or permanent. Regardless of how much hair is lost, follicles remain alive. Hair regrowth may occur, after many years, even without treatment.
What Causes Alopecia Areata
Scientists do not know what the trigger is that causes autoimmune disease to start and stop, or why the immune system suddenly disrupts the normal functioning of the hair follicles.
They believe that heredity plays a part, but is not the only answer. Studies show there is a loose genetic correlation and that 20% of people with this condition have a close family member with the disease.
Researcher also suggests that viruses, infections, medicines and environmental factors are all possible causes. Stress is also believed to have an impact.
Scientists keep searching for the elusive trigger. Its discovery will allow sufferers to avoid relapses. However no dietary or lifestyle modification has yet been found.
Current treatments do not turn alopecia areata off. Although they stimulate the hair follicles and produce hair again, treatments need to be continued until the disease turns itself off.