When you hear people talk about hair loss, they may use the word alopecia. While alopecia might bring to mind a certain type of hair loss, it’s actually a general term. Derived from the ancient Greek word for “fox mange,” or the loss of fur on a fox, alopecia simply refers to hair loss of any type, whether it’s caused by your genes, an overactive immune system, or an external stressor. Some types of hair loss might have the word alopecia in their names while others might not, but all types of a hair loss are technically a type of alopecia.
Types and Causes
The type of alopecia you might hear the most about is androgenetic alopecia, or female or male pattern baldness. When a person is experiencing androgenetic alopecia, he or she will lose hair in a very distinct pattern. In men, the hair recedes from the hairline and can also begin to thin at the crown, so that, if nothing is done, eventually the entire top of the head may become bald. The pattern is a bit different in women, as they most commonly experience a diffuse thinning all over the head, although different patterns can occur.
Male and female pattern baldness is a genetic form of hair loss, meaning that people who experience it have one or more genes that cause it. One of the genesconnected to androgenetic alopecia disrupts androgen receptors, making the hair follicles more susceptible to the effects of hormones, in particular DHT or dihydrotestosterone.
Alopecia areata is another type of alopecia that people might be familiar with. The third most common type of hair loss, alopecia areata is still relatively rare, affecting about two out of every 100 people. One way to distinguish alopecia areata from male or female pattern baldness is to look at the way the hair thins. Usually, people with alopecia areata lose hair in patches and might have small coin-sized bald spots on their heads. When a person has alopecia areata, his or her immune system begins attacking the hair follicles, leading to the hair loss. Some people with alopecia areata might develop alopecia universalis, or the complete loss of all hair all over the body.
Scarring alopecia also results in bald patches on the scalp, although they look slightly different from the patches that develop when a person has alopecia areata. The condition can be caused by a number of factors, but the result in all cases is the same: the hair follicles are destroyed. While the hair will usually regrow when a person has alopecia areata, the hair loss from scarring alopecia tends to be permanent.
Alopecia can also occur thanks to an outside stressor on the body and can be a temporary loss of hair, corrected when the stress is removed. For example, people with telogen effluvium can lose a considerable amount of hair months after a stressful event, such as sickness, giving birth or having a lot of stress at work. Most people with telogen effluvium regain their hair without any additional treatments.
Understanding the type and cause of alopecia helps a person and his or her doctor determine the best way to treat it. In the case of telogen effluvium, for example, the best treatment might be to remove the stressor and wait and see if the hair returns. Alopecia caused by medications or illness can be reversed when the medication is stopped or adjusted or after a person recovers.
Permanent types of alopecia, such as scarring alopecia and male pattern baldness, are often best treated with a hair transplant. In the case of male pattern baldness, hair follicles that aren’t affected by hormones are moved from one area of the scalp, either the sides or back, and placed on the top. In the case of scarring alopecia, the patient usually has to wait for the condition to “burn out,” meaning that any inflammation has died down and the patches of baldness are no longer increasing in size. After that point, hair can be transplanted to the area to reduce the size of the bald patches.
When alopecia is caused by the immune system, there are several ways to treat it, most of them focusing on controlling or reducing the immune response. Corticosteroid injections help suppress the immune system and encourage new hair growth. Treatments can also focus on stimulating hair growth, such as applying minoxidil to the bald areas, or using platelet rich plasma therapy to encourage new growth.
Alopecia is more common than you might think. If you are experiencing any type of hair loss and want to get to the bottom of the cause and find treatment that will provide the best results, contact Dr. Jeffrey Epstein, a hair restoration specialist with practices in Miami and NYC, today. To schedule a consultation in Miami, call (305) 666-1774. For an appointment in NY, call (212) 759-3484 today.