Alopecia areata is a common autoimmune disorder that commonly results in unpredictable hair loss. It affects 2% of Americans (roughly 6.5 million people) and can affect anyone regardless of age and gender.1
The word alopecia comes from Ancient Greek and roughly translates as "fox disease," on account of foxes changing their fur twice a year. The word areata means "occurring in patches or circumscribed areas."
Contents of this article:
You will also see introductions at the end of some sections to any recent developments that have been covered by MNT's news stories. Also look out for links to information about related conditions.
Fast facts on alopecia areata
Here are some key points about alopecia areata. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Alopecia areata is considered to be an autoimmune disease.
- One in five people with alopecia areata also has a family member who has experienced the condition.
- People with a family history of alopecia areata also often have a personal or family history of other autoimmune disorders.
- Alopecia areata often develops suddenly, over the course of just a few days.
- As well as affecting the hair, alopecia areata can affect the nails.
- There is little scientific evidence that alopecia areata is caused by stress.
- Alopecia areata is most commonly treated with corticosteroids.
- People with alopecia areata who have only a few patches of hair loss often experience a spontaneous, full recovery, without the need for treatment.
- There is no cure for alopecia areata.
- Support groups and counseling are available for people with alopecia areata.
What is alopecia areata?
Alopecia areata is "a common condition of undetermined etiology characterized by circumscribed, nonscarring, usually asymmetric areas of baldness on the scalp, eyebrows, and bearded portion of the face."2
Alopecia areata is a common autoimmune disorder that commonly results in unpredictable hair loss.
In the majority of cases, hair falls out in small patches around the size of a quarter. For most people, the hair loss is nothing more than a few patches, though in some cases it can be more extreme. Sometimes it can lead to the complete loss of hair on the scalp (alopecia totalis) or in extreme cases the entire body (alopecia universalis).3
Alopecia areata is considered to be an autoimmune disease, where the immune system mistakenly identifies the body's own cells instead of harmful foreign invaders. In the case of alopecia areata, the immune system attacks the hair follicles which leads to hair loss.
Causes of alopecia areata3
The condition occurs when white blood cells attack the cells in hair follicles, causing them to shrink and dramatically slow down hair production. It is unknown precisely what causes the body's immune system to target hair follicles in this way.
While scientists are unsure why these changes occur, it seems that genetics are involved as alopecia areata is more likely to occur in a person who has a close family member with the disease. One in five people with the disease has a family member who has also developed alopecia areata.
Other research has found that many people with a family history of alopecia areata also have a personal or family history of other autoimmune disorders, such as atopy.4
Despite what many people say, there is very little scientific evidence to support the view that alopecia areata is caused by stress. Extreme cases of stress could potentially trigger alopecia areata, but most recent research points toward a genetic cause.5
Recent developments on alopecia areata causes from MNT news
New research published in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that autoimmune disorders and cancer may share a pathogenic connection.
Symptoms of alopecia areata4-6
The most prominent symptom of alopecia areata is patchy hair loss. Coin-sized patches of hair begin to fall out, mainly from the scalp. Any site of hair growth may be affected, however, including the beard and eyelashes.
The loss of hair can be sudden, developing in just a few days. The hair follicles are not destroyed and so hair can re-grow if the inflammation of the follicles subsides. People who experience just a few patches of hair loss often have a spontaneous full recovery without any form of treatment.
About 30% of individuals who develop alopecia areata find that their condition either becomes more extensive or that they experience continuous cycles of hair loss and regrowth.
Alopecia can affect both men and women equally.
Alopecia areata can also affect the fingernails and toenails, and sometimes these changes are the first sign that alopecia areata is developing. There are a number of small changes that can occur to nails:
- Pinpoint dents can appear
- White spots and lines can appear
- Nails can become rough
- Nails can lose their shine
- Nails can become thin and split.
Additional clinical signs include "exclamation-mark hairs," where a few short hairs that get narrower at their bottom grow in or around the edges of bald spots, "cadaver hairs," hairs broken before reach the skin surface, and the regrowth of white hair in areas affected by hair loss.
On the next page, we look at tests and diagnosis of alopecia areata and the available treatment options for the condition.