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What Is Alopecia, And Is There A Cure?

author

Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockMar 28 2022, 14:09 UTC
Image Credit: Suthikait Teerawattanaphan/Shutterstock.com

A person suffering from alopecia. Image Credit: Suthikait Teerawattanaphan/Shutterstock.com

It is normal to lose a certain amount of hair; we lose somewhere between 50-100 hairs a day. However, not all hair loss is the same. Aging causes hair thinning and hair loss, particularly in men. Male and female pattern baldness affects more than 50 percent of men over 50 and around 40 percent of women over 40, respectively. A condition like alopecia, however, can affect people of any gender and any age.

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Does alopecia cause all your hair to fall out? 

Alopecia, or to give its full medical name alopecia areata, is a condition where hair loss occurs in small round patches mostly on the skull. 

In some rare cases, alopecia is more extensive than just patches of hair loss. In alopecia totalis, people lose all the hair on their scalp. The most advanced form of alopecia is alopecia universalis, where people can lose all the hair on their body.

According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), alopecia areata affects around one in 4,000 people. The percentage of people who go on to develop alopecia unversalis or totalis is between 7 and 25 percent.

What causes alopecia?

The exact cause of alopecia is unknown but it is thought to be an autoimmune disease. In autoimmune diseases the body attacks itself. In this case, the hair follicle loses its immunity privilege and mistakenly gets attacked, causing the hair to fall out but without leaving scars on the skin.

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Alopecia can happen to anyone. While it can happen in young children, the most common onset is between the teenage years and thirties. Having a family member with the condition puts you more at risk, but for many, there’s no known family history of the condition.

Certain autoimmune diseases, including vitiligo, psoriasis, and thyroid disease might have a connection too. People with those conditions and those who have allergies such as hay fever are more likely to develop alopecia. 

A number of genes have been linked to the disease, including some that play a role in the proper functioning of the immune system. It's thought that a combination of genes and environmental factors may trigger the condition. People may inherit a genetic predisposition to be more susceptible to alopecia (you cannot inherit the condition) but never have it unless an environmental factor sets it off. Environmental factors include stress or illness, trauma and infection, though the mechanisms behind these are uncertain.

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Socio-economic factors may also play a role. For example, there are increased odds of alopecia in Black and Hispanic women compared to white women.

Alopecia Symptoms, Treatments, But No Cure   

Hair loss from alopecia areata starts in round or oval patches of hair on the scalp usually, although it might start elsewhere in the body. The skin looks normal with no rash or redness, although some people report feeling itching, tingling, and even burning before the hair falls out.

In some cases, the hair regrows after a few months without treatment. Sometimes more patches can appear, even if the hair has regrown in other areas. Alopecia can affect nails too, with the formation of ridges and pits.

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As it stands, there are treatments for alopecia, although they are most effective in treating mild cases, but no cure. Scientists report that it is common for alopecia to come back. According to NIH, only around 10 percent of patients recover fully. 

It's important to take steps to protect your body in the absence of hair. This includes protecting the skin by wearing sunscreen, wearing glasses or sunglasses to protect the eyes in the way eyelashes and eyebrows do, and applying ointments to the nostrils to prevent organisms from invading the nose without nostril hair.  

It's also important to note people with alopecia have higher levels of anxiety and depression than those that do not.

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All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current. 


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