What is Alopecia Areata?

Alopecia areata (AA) is a disease in which the autoimmune system mistakenly identifies structures within the hair follicles as foreign invaders and subsequently attacks. Typically, the hair will fall out in small circular patches on the scalp. In other cases, however, the hair loss can be rapid and cover other areas of the body, though this is rare.

What Causes Alopecia Areata?

At this time, exactly what causes the autoimmune system to malfunction and attack the hair follicle remains unknown. One team of researchers conducted a study on over a thousand patients that suggests the hair follicle itself releases a signal that the immune system interprets as dangerous, although the specific working mechanisms are not clear. Some researchers believe that this condition is genetic.

How Can I Determine if I Have Alopecia Areata?

Your doctor will review your medical history for autoimmune disorders, ask questions, and conduct a physical examination. If this is not enough to make a medical diagnosis, your doctor may take a sample of your hair and scalp tissue for microscope analysis. In addition, the doctor may order blood tests for certain conditions such as abnormalities within the thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, depending on if it is overactive or underactive).

Is there a Cure for Alopecia Areata?

As of right now, there is no permanent cure to AA. Many respond well to medications, however, though some experience no noticeable change. The most common ways to combat AA are by prescribing Minoxidil (Rogaine) and topical corticosteroids. At Yale University, a drug called Tofcitnib enabled a man with AA to regrow healthy hair within a few months. Similarly, a drug called Ruxolitinib successfully treated three patients suffering from chronic AA. Both of these drugs were originally designed to combat arthritis, though it may be a number of years before they are available on the market for public use.

Do Most People Recover?

At some point, the immune system usually stops attacking the hair follicles, and the hair regains its full volume and density over time. For a small percentage, however, the hair follicle infrastructure has been repeatedly damaged by white blood cells to the point where it can no longer grow. For this group, the symptoms of AA are permanent.

Permanent hair loss is most likely in those who experience the following:

  • A family history of AA.
  • A history in one’s family of autoimmune diseases.
  • AA before puberty.
  • A bout of AA that lasts longer than one year.
  • Multiple severe allergies.
  • Previous hair loss from an unrelated condition.

If you have changes in the shape, color, or texture of the nails on both your fingers and toes, it made be a sign of persistent AA.

Who is Most Affected by Alopecia Areata?

Though Canadian statistics are not available, an American study found that 5.3 million people in the United States suffer from the autoimmune disease. There is no ethnic group that seems particularly vulnerable, and it happens to both men and women. The chance of developing AA in the average American lifespan is 1.7%, remarkably low.

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