What is Alopecia Areata and Who Gets It?
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss for both adults and children. This can cause hair loss on the scalp as well as on the body, such as eyebrows, eyelashes and facial hair. This happens when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s hair follicles, causing them to fall out and stop growing.
It’s estimated that alopecia areata affects over 6.5 million people in the U.S. Often, those who have/had a blood relative with the disease have a greater chance of developing it. It usually begins during childhood and teenage years, however it can start at any age. It also affects all races and genders.
Signs and Symptoms
In addition to hair loss, people with alopecia areata may notice changes in their nails (splitting, thinning, white spots, roughness), itching or discomfort on areas of the skin losing hair (or that will begin losing hair) and eye irritation (if eyebrows and eyelashes are lost).
Typically, those with alopecia areata are otherwise healthy and don’t develop other autoimmune diseases. However, having one autoimmune disease can increase the risk of developing another one. For example, alopecia areata can increase the risk of getting vitiligo, a condition that causes the skin to lose its color. Alopecia areata also increases the risk of developing allergic conditions like eczema, asthma or nasal allergies.
Does Lost Hair Grow Back?
Since alopecia areata doesn’t destroy hair follicles, hair will likely regrow. But this varies from case to case. Hair can also fall out again even if it does regrow. The cycle of hair loss and growth is unpredictable. Some will only lose hair once and never have any more hair loss. Some will develop a few bald patches, while others may lose all or most of their head and body hair. Hair that regrows may be white or blond, and finer than before. This is usually temporary. Natural hair color and texture often return.
Diagnosing Alopecia Areata
A board-certified dermatologist can often diagnose the disease by inspecting the areas with hair loss. Sometimes removing a few hairs for biopsy (microscopic exam) may be necessary. Your scalp may also need to be examined with a dermatoscope. This can help provide a clear view of the hair follicles and assist in diagnosing.
If an additional autoimmune disease is suspected, further testing may be needed. There are three types of alopecia areata you can be diagnosed with, based on the amount and distribution of hair loss:
- Alopecia areata: This is the most common type and is characterized by round patches of hair loss, mainly on the scalp.
- Alopecia totalis: Loss of all hair on the scalp.
- Alopecia universalis: Loss of all hair on the body (most rare type).