Alopecia is a big name for a simple problem: hair loss. It can be a disruptive, embarrassing condition that can affect anyone, but if you know what to look for and how to treat alopecia, it doesn’t have to be permanent.
Hair falls out naturally and most people will lose 50-100 hairs per day. Alopecia describes hair loss that is out of the ordinary. If you notice hair falling out in quantities higher than usual, it might be alopecia. Alopecia can affect hair on any part of the body, but the term alopecia on its own indicates hair loss from the scalp. Other names for this kind of alopecia include male or female pattern baldness or androgenetic alopecia. It can also be called hereditary hair loss because in almost all scenarios where alopecia affects the scalp, it is a genetic problem passed down within families.
Another, less common form of alopecia is called alopecia areata. This is a condition where hair is lost in circular patches anywhere on the body. It’s different from androgenetic alopecia because it affects smaller, specific areas rather than the whole scalp or other body parts.
Two more rare forms of alopecia – alopecia totalis and alopecia universalis – cause a person to lose all of the hair from specific body parts. Alopecia totalis is total hair loss from the scalp, while alopecia universalis is the loss of all body hair. Only about 5% of people who suffer from alopecia suffer from these two types.
Since alopecia is a general term for hair loss, the causes can be numerous. For more severe forms of alopecia like areata, totalis, and universalis, hair loss happens because the body’s immune system attacks the hair follicles. For male and female pattern baldness, the causes are less intense. These forms of hair loss are simply genetic and affect men and women in slightly different ways. Men often notice a receding hairline with bald patches on the top of the scalp. Women more commonly experience thinning hair and rarely have bald patches like men.
Two major causes of alopecia are hormonal changes (mostly in women) and stress. After giving birth, some women experience hair loss as the body’s levels of estrogen decrease back to normal numbers. This alopecia is short-term and hair loss will stop as estrogen levels stabilize. Alopecia can occur during and after menopause, but this hair loss is also temporary. Stressful events or sustained high stress can cause hair loss. Knowing and avoiding your own specific stress triggers can be helpful in managing hair loss.
There are many other natural ways that hair loss can occur. Medical conditions like anemia or thyroid disease can often cause hair loss, and is usually an early symptom of these diseases. Illnesses like the flu can result in alopecia. Additionally, high fevers unrelated to the flu can lead to hair loss.
Unnatural causes of alopecia include external factors such as certain hair care products and medical treatments. Using harsh products and hair care practices like bleach, constant dying, and frequent use of blow dryers or irons can all contribute to hair loss. It’s recommended to use these hair treatments sparingly, or avoid them as much as possible.
Medications like blood thinners, steroids, and birth control can also cause alopecia. If you’re experiencing such side effects, talk to your doctor about other possible medications or ways to prevent further hair loss.
Chemotherapy, a process that uses radiation or chemicals to treat cancer, often causes hair loss. Depending on the strength of treatment, hair loss can be extreme. Hair loss from chemotherapy will only last as long as your treatment, and hair growth usually returns to normal when treatment ends.
Even though alopecia can be stressful and affect your self-esteem, there is a good chance that treatment can help you regain some or most of the hair you’ve lost. The key to preventing more hair loss is early detection and intervention.
The first thing your dermatologist will do is determine the cause of your alopecia. Once a reason for your hair loss is determined, your dermatologist will outline a course of treatment that works for your specific type of alopecia. There are a number of treatment options for hair loss, and a qualified, trusted dermatologist is your best bet for treating it right the first time. While drugs like minoxidil are available in stores without a prescription, your dermatologist can prescribe it in conjunction with other prescription drugs or processes. Minoxidil can work for both men and women, and best treats hair loss on top of the scalp. It can prevent further hair loss, encourage hair to grow, and keep it from thinning any further.
You may be prescribed medication to treat your alopecia. Finasteride, an FDA-approved oral medication, is one treatment option for certain male patients that can help treat hair loss. In more than half of men treated, finasteride slowed down hair loss and stimulated growth. The drug works by stopping the production of the male hormone, DHT (dihydrotestosterone) which can cause hair loss. Speak with your doctor about this option and whether or not it is right for you.
Corticosteroids are also used to treat alopecia if it’s caused by inflammation from a condition like cicatricial alopecia (aka scarring alopecia). Cicatricial alopecia destroys hair follicles like alopecia areata and totalis, but is different because it leaves behind scar tissue. The inflamed scar tissue or skin prevents hair from regrowing. Corticosteroids are injected into the affected area and can stop the inflammation caused by these more serious alopecia conditions.
There are other treatments available for alopecia that you and your dermatologist can explore together. Reach out to your New England dermatologist today.