Auto immune diseases occur when the immune system of the body make a mistake and begin to see the cells the body as threats and attack these cells. In this series, we have looked at a few auto immune diseases and it is safe to say that auto immune diseases can affect any part of the body.
In this edition, we are looking at Alopecia Areata. Alopecia Areata according to experts, is a disease that causes hair to fall out in small patches. The immune system attacks the hair follicles causing the hair to fall out from the scalp or any other part of the body that has hair. Hair follicles are the structures from which hair grows. When the immune system attacks these hair follicles they become smaller and stop producing hair, leading to hair loss.
Like so many other autoimmune diseases, researchers do not know the exact reason why the immune system attacks the hair follicles. The exact cause for this condition is unknown. However, it mostly occurs in people who have a family history of other autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 Diabetes and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Most times, the hair falls off in clumps the size of a quarter. However, experts say it is important to note that the hair loss is different in individuals. Some people lose only a small amount of hair while others lose a lot. In some cases, people lose all their hair on the head, this is referred to as Alopecia Areata Totalis and in other cases, people lose all the hair on the body, it is referred to as Alopecia Areata Universalis. Some patients will later grow the lost hair back and still lose it, while others will grow the lost hair and never lose it again.
It is necessary to see a doctor if you notice hair loss. The doctor might be able to diagnose Alopecia Areata simply by looking at the extent of your hair loss and examining a few hair samples under a microscope. A scalp biopsy could also be performed to rule out the possibility of other conditions as the reason for the hair loss. During a scalp biopsy, the doctor removes a small piece of skin on the scalp for analysis. If other autoimmune diseases are suspected, blood tests might be carried out.
There is no known cure for Alopecia Areata. But it can be treated and the patient may be able to stop future hair loss or get the hair to grow back faster. However, some measures that may be applied to treat Alopecia Areata include:
Corticosteroids: These are anti-inflammatory drugs that are prescribed for autoimmune diseases. They can be given as injection into the scalp or other affected areas, in pill form or rubbed into the skin of the affected area as an ointment, cream or foam. However, experts say that the downside to this treatment is that it might take a long time to actually work.
Topical Immunotherapy: This is used when there is a lot of hair loss or if it reoccurs. Chemicals are applied to the scalp to produce an allergic reaction. This allergic reaction is actually what makes the hair grow again. However, research shows that it also causes itchy rash and usually has to be repeated several times to repeat the new hair growth.
Apart from these treatments, there are other things that a person with Alopecia Areata can do to still lead a very normal life.
Wear wigs, scarves or hats. They do not only cover the hair loss, they also protect the scalp especially from sunlight.
Apply sunscreen to protect affected areas from the sun.
If the eyelashes happen to fall off, the patient can always use sunglasses to protect the eyes from sunlight and dust.
Although most people see Alopecia Areata as a not too serious medical condition. It can lead to sadness and depression especially in women. Hence, it is important you link up to support groups or people that you can share your fears, burdens and story with.
The effectiveness of the treatment varies from person to person. Some people do not even need treatment as their hair grows back on its own. In other cases, people may never see any improvement despite trying every treatment option.