What is alopecia areata?
Alopecia areata is a disease that causes hair loss. In alopecia areata, the immune system attacks the structures in skin that form hair (hair follicles).
Alopecia areata usually affects the head and face, though hair can be lost from any part of the body. Hair typically falls out in small, round patches about the size of a quarter. In some cases, hair loss is more extensive.
Who gets alopecia areata?
Anyone can have alopecia areata:
- Both men and women can get it.
- It affects all racial and ethnic groups.
- It can happen at any age, but most people get it in their teens, 20s, or 30s.
If you have a close family member with the disease, you may have a higher risk of getting it, but for many people, there is no family history.
People with certain diseases, such as psoriasis, and those with allergic conditions such as hay fever are more likely to get alopecia areata.
What are the types of alopecia areata?
There are three main types of alopecia areata. In the most common type, hair loss happens in one or more coin-sized patches on the scalp or other parts of the body.
What are the symptoms of alopecia areata?
Alopecia areata mostly affects hair, but in sometimes it can cause changes to the nails. People with the disease are usually healthy and have no other symptoms.
Alopecia areata typically begins with sudden loss of round or oval patches of hair on the scalp, but any part of the body may be affected, such as the beard area in men, or the eyebrows or eyelashes.
After a bare patch develops, several possible things may happen:
- The hair grows back within a few months. It may look white or gray at first but may regain its natural color over time.
- More bare patches develop. Sometimes hair grows back in the first patch while new bare patches form.
- Small patches join to form larger ones.
- In rare cases, all body hair is lost.
In most cases, the hair regrows, but more hair loss may follow.
Nail changes such as ridges and pits occur in some people, especially those who have hair loss over more parts of their body.
What causes alopecia areata?
In alopecia areata, the immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles, causing hair loss. Doctors do not know why the immune system attacks hair follicles, but they believe that both your genes and environmental factors play a role.
Is there a test for alopecia areata?
There is no single test to tell you if you have alopecia areata. Doctors usually see if you have the disease by:
- Looking at the areas where the hair has been lost and at your nails.
- Looking at your hair and hair follicle openings.
- Asking about your medical and family history.
- Ordering blood tests or other lab tests.
How is alopecia areata treated?
For many people, hair grows back without any type of treatment.
The main goal of treatment is to stop the immune system attack on hair follicles and to help hair grow back. While there are no drugs that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for alopecia areata, medications that have been approved for other conditions may be used to treat it.
Who treats alopecia areata?
Alopecia areata is treated by:
- Dermatologists, who specialize in conditions of the skin, hair, and nails.
Other specialists who may be involved in your care include:
- Mental health professionals, who can help with the psychosocial challenges caused by having a medical condition.
- Primary care doctors, such as family physicians or internal medicine specialists, who coordinate care between the different health providers and treat other problems as they arise.
Living with alopecia areata
Alopecia areata may affect your sense of well-being. There are many things you can do to cope with the effects of this disease, including:
- Learn as much as you can about the disease, and talk with others who are dealing with it.
- Visit a mental health professional if you experience higher levels of stress, depression, or anxiety.
Protect bare skin and stay comfortable.
- Use sunscreens for any bare areas.
- Wear wigs, hairpieces, hats, or scarves to protect your scalp from the sun and to keep your head warm.
- Wear eyeglasses or sunglasses to protect your eyes from sun and dust if you have lost hair from your eyebrows or eyelashes.
Consider cosmetic solutions.
- Wear a wig, hairpiece, or bandana to cover up hair loss. Some people choose to shave their heads to mask patchy hair loss.
- Use fake eyelashes or apply stick-on eyebrows if you lose hair from your eyelashes or eyebrows.
Take care of your health.
- Visit your primary care doctor regularly. People with alopecia areata have a higher risk of certain other diseases, and early diagnosis is important.