What's to know about alopecia areata?

Alopecia areata is a common autoimmune disorder that often results in unpredictable hair loss.
It affects roughly 6.8 million people in the United States.

In the majority of cases, hair falls out in small patches around the size of a quarter. For most people, the hair loss is nothing more than a few patches, though in some cases it can be more extreme.

Sometimes, it can lead to the complete loss of hair on the scalp (alopecia totalis) or, in extreme cases, the entire body (alopecia universalis).

The condition can affect anyone regardless of age and gender, though most cases occur before the age of 30.

In this article, we look at the causes and symptoms of alopecia areata, its diagnosis, and potential treatments.

Here are some key points about alopecia areata. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

  • One in five people with alopecia areata also has a family member who has experienced the condition.
  • Alopecia areata often develops suddenly, over the course of just a few days.
  • There is little scientific evidence that alopecia areata is caused by stress.
  • People with alopecia areata who have only a few patches of hair loss often experience a spontaneous, full recovery, without the need for treatment.
  • There is no cure for alopecia areata.
There is currently no cure for alopecia areata, although there are some forms of treatment that can be suggested by doctors to help hair re-grow more quickly.

The most common form of alopecia areata treatment is the use of corticosteroids, powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that can suppress the immune system. These are mostly commonly administered through local injections, topical ointment application, or orally.

Other medications that can be prescribed that either promote hair growth or affect the immune system include Minoxidil, Anthralin, SADBE, and DPCP. Although some of these may help with the re-growth of hair, they cannot prevent the formation of new bald patches.

 

Support groups and counseling are available for people to share their thoughts and feelings, and to discuss common psychological reactions to the condition.

Alopecia areata has been compared by some to vitiligo, an autoimmune skin disease where the body attacks melanin-producing cells, leading to white patches. Research suggests that these two conditions may share a similar pathogenesis, with similar types of immune cells and cytokines driving the diseases and common genetic risk factors.

As such, any new developments in the treatment or prevention of either disease may have consequences for the other.

There have been a handful of documented cases where treatment for alopecia areata using diphencyprone (DCP), a contact sensitizer, has led to the development of vitiligo.

Preliminary research in animals has found that quercetin, a naturally occurring bioflavonoid found in fruits and vegetables, can protect against the development of alopecia areata and effectively treat existing hair loss.

Further research is needed, including human clinical trials, before quercetin can be considered a treatment for alopecia areata.