Hair Loss (Alopecia Areata)

Understand the symptoms and treatment options for chronic hair loss.

Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system attacks hair at the root. The result? Loss of patches of hair on the scalp, face, and other parts of the body.

This condition can affect anyone of any age. Children, young adults, and those with a family history of the disease are more likely to suffer hair loss. Often, lost hair will grow back and fall out again. This cycle can last for many years. The condition affects about 2 percent of Americans of all ethnic backgrounds and ages.

Symptoms of alopecia areata

Hair loss usually starts in one or more small, round, smooth patches on the scalp. These patches may be slightly red or flesh colored. Some people will have small hairs with tapered ends growing near these patches.

Itching and soreness may occur before hair loss begins. Eyebrows, eyelashes, facial hair, and hair on other parts of the body also may fall out. However, full-body hair loss is rare -- only about 5 percent of people with the condition lose all the hair on their bodies.

Though alopecia areata is physically painless, it can affect self-esteem and confidence. Loss of eyelashes and eyebrows may leave people with the condition more susceptible to germs and dust entering the body through the eyes. Your doctor will give you support resources and information to manage these symptoms.

How we diagnose the condition

A dermatologist will closely examine the affected area. If these areas are getting bigger, the doctor might pull a few sample hairs and examine them with a microscope. The dermatologist may recommend a skin biopsy or blood test to pinpoint the diagnosis. These tests also can rule out underlying conditions that can cause hair loss.

Hair loss treatment options

As of 2016, there is no cure for alopecia areata. However, treatment can improve symptoms and even help regrow hair. These include:

  • Corticosteroid creams or injections
  • Topical medications (minoxidil or Rogaine, anthralin)
  • Topical immunotherapy (squaric acid dibutylester [SADBE] or diphencyprone [DPCP])
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