Hair is a major part of many people’s identity and self-esteem. Even if you haven’t given it much thought, it’s important to recognize the early warning signs of hair loss.
Alopecia is defined simply as hair loss. Generally speaking, alopecia is when your hair grows slower than it falls out. Our body’s natural lifecycle for hair closely mirrors our skin’s. When new hair grows, it essentially replaces hair recently lost from the follicle. When this production and loss schedule is disrupted, hair loss occurs.
Age is the number one contributor to alopecia. As we grow older, many bodily processes slow, contributing to hair thinning and loss, wrinkles, and a number of other cosmetic and medical conditions. Hair loss is fairly predictable when it comes to aging. Women will notice thinning hair as they age and especially during and after menopause. Men will generally experience more complete hair loss from certain areas. These conditions are referred to as female and male pattern baldness, and are primarily tied to genetics. Luckily for women, most hair loss beyond thinning is the result of temporary conditions or hormonal changes like pregnancy.
Hair loss is not always just a part of aging. Sometimes it’s a medical condition and can be referred to as alopecia areata, totalis, or universalis. These conditions are all caused by the body’s natural immune defense attacking hair follicles by mistake. When the follicles are destroyed, hair production ceases. Alopecia areata is what it sounds like: hair is lost in particular areas or patches. Alopecia totalis is total loss of hair on the scalp, and alopecia universalis is when all of the body’s hair is lost. These are exceedingly uncommon conditions, but do occur in roughly 5% of people with alopecia. The hair loss from any kind of alopecia may not be permanent, but usually recurs and can last for months or even years.
Perhaps the best indicator of alopecia areata and other forms of alopecia have nothing to do with your hair. Your nail health can tell a lot about your body’s health, if you’re paying attention. Pitting, or small craters on the surface of your fingernails, can actually be an early symptom of alopecia. Alopecia can also make nails rough, thin, or develop white patches or stripes beneath the nailbed called leukonychia. You may notice leukonychia in your nails. This is not always a cause for concern. Simple things like trauma to the nail bed (trauma can be a fairly small injury) can cause these white spots or lines. It’s important to make note of any changes in terms of nail discoloration because leukonychia can indicate other health problems beyond alopecia. In some extreme cases, alopecia can cause nails to weaken or even fall off.
If there is no explanation for your declining nail health, consult a dermatologist to rule out alopecia or other serious health problems.
Obviously, the best way to recognize alopecia is to look at your hair. Hair loss can be sudden, but for some there are red flags in the form of your hair’s changing health. Alopecia areata or other severe forms of alopecia are usually first a small patch of lost hair. If you can rule out environmental causes like certain irritants or allergic reactions, alopecia is probably to blame.
Hair often looks noticeably different on the edges of bald patches caused by alopecia. These small hairs bordering the hairless spots are referred to as exclamation mark hairs since the hairs taper, thinning as they go down and looking like a classic exclamation mark. The newer hair toward the bottom is less healthy and thinner. This can sometimes be apparent in hair that hasn’t experienced high levels of loss.
Alopecia can be sudden and without warning. All of the early detection tools won’t make a difference if alopecia is severe and fast-acting. That said, for most people alopecia is not extreme and can be spotted. There are a number of treatments that dermatologists can provide to help hair follicles and promote new growth.
If you suspect that your body is warning you about alopecia, take immediate action. Reaching out to your New England dermatologist might make the difference between baldness and a healthier head of hair.