Alopecia Areata

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

There are some individuals who suffer from hair loss issues unrelated to hair-thinning. In fact, they are suffering from a specific condition called alopecia areata, which can strike at an age. This type of hair loss is characterized by several key symptoms. This article explores the signs of alopecia areata along with causes and options for dealing with this condition.


Alopecia areata is actually an autoimmune disease, meaning that it causes an individual’s immune system to attack healthy tissues within the body. With alopecia areata, the immune system attacks the body’s hair follicles, causing them to fall out. This can appear as bald patches on the head, or it can affect the entire head (alopecia areata totalis). When hair follicles all over the body, including eyebrows, eyelashes, arm hair, leg hair and pubic hair are affected, this condition is referred to as alopecia areata universalis. In most cases, only specific patches of hair are affected.

There are several signs and symptoms of alopecia areata, including:

  • Patchy hair loss: Most individuals with alopecia areata first notice the condition when they begin losing round patches of hair. The patches are usually about the size of a quarter. Hair loss is often noticed by clumps coming out while showering or excess hair found on the pillow in a person’s bed. The hair loss may stop after the original patches are found or may continue until the person is entirely bald. It can occur not only on the head but also on the eyebrows, on a beard, on the arms or legs, etc.
  • Exclamation point hairs: The round patches of baldness on a person with alopecia areata are surrounding by short hairs that get narrower at the bottom, which causes them to resemble exclamation points.
  • Nail problems: Alopecia areata can also affect a person’s fingernails and toenails by causing “pitting,” which is tiny, pinpoint dents on the nail surface. Sometimes, the nails also develop white spots or lines, become dull rather than shiny or get a rough texture. In some cases, the nails become thin and brittle to the point where they split or crack.
  • Recurrence: In some cases, the hair that was lost will grow back and stay. In others the hair loss is permanent or will come and go over the years. The specifics of how much hair is lost and for how long can vary from person to person.

Causes and Risk Factors

Alopecia areata is caused by an autoimmune disorder. It can occur in men, women and children and often begins at an early age. The major risk factor for alopecia areata that has been identified is genetics. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about 20 percent of people with this condition have a family history of alopecia areata. In some rare instances, a major life event can trigger the condition. Examples of this include pregnancy, trauma or serious illness.

People with alopecia areata should be aware that having autoimmune disease causes them and their blood relatives to have a higher risk for certain medical conditions, including:

  • Asthma
  • Allergies or hay fever
  • Eczema
  • Other autoimmune diseases, like vitiligo or lupus

Prevention and Treatment

There are currently no methods for preventing alopecia areata. However, there are some treatments available for those who currently have the condition, including:

  • Corticosteroids: This is an immune system suppressant that is often administered via an injection at the sites of hair loss. There is also a topical form of the medication available – it is often given to children with the condition and is less effective than the injections. After a series of shots spread out over several weeks, some patients are able to regrow their hair.
  • Anthralin: This is a medication with alters the function of the immune system. It is a thick, tar-like paste which is applied to the skin and left on for a short period of time. It may help to stop hair loss.
  • Minoxidil: Some patients use this medicine in conjunction with other treatments to attempt to regrow their hair.
  • Diphencyprone: This topical medication induces an intentional allergic reaction on bald areas of the skin, resulting in swelling, itching and redness. When the reaction occurs, the immune system may send white blood cells to the site of baldness, which can help to stimulate hair regrowth and ease the symptoms of the allergic reaction.

It’s very important to discuss possible side effects with your doctor before beginning treatment. Furthermore, be aware that not all treatments are effective or permanent, and hair may fall out again in the future.

Diagnosis and Management

A doctor can diagnose this condition with a physical assessment of a person’s hair loss. In other cases, a skin biopsy or hair sample can be used to confirm that an individual has the autoimmune disease. It’s important to see your doctor if you are experiencing patchy hair loss since this could be a sign of other, more dangerous conditions besides alopecia areata.

There are several tools available to individuals with alopecia areata to help manage their condition. Different hair styles can often cover bald spots, while wigs, scarves and hats can be used to cover larger bald areas. There are also different make-up products available to help with certain types of hair loss, such as eyebrow pencils which can fill in for hair lost on the face. In addition, there are several support groups and online resources which provide assistance and guidance for those with the condition.


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