Alopecia Areata. How many of you are familiar with this term? I know I wasn’t. My introduction to this disease was from my lovely friend, and #1 informant, Google. I remember hearing the term pop up in a conversation a few years back, and it piqued my interest. So I picked up my phone, and started surfing through the internet to better understand this unique medical condition. For those of you who don’t know, alopecia is autoimmune disease, which causes patches or sections of your hair to fall out everywhere, whether it’s on your head, eyebrows, or eyelashes. While researching, I discovered that this disease is very common; there are almost 200 thousand cases in the U.S. per year! If those are the demographics in one country, imagine how many people world-wide might be struggling with this? The month of September happens to be Alopecia Awareness Month. So let’s take some time to sit and dissect the biology of this disease, and talk about the symptoms, causes, and effects.
Alopecia is caused by one’s immune system attacking hair follicles. This autoimmune disorder has three different variants:
- Alopecia, areata totalis (loss of hair all over the head,)
- Alopecia areata universalis (loss of hair over the entire body,)
- Diffuse Alopecia areata (sudden thinning instead of patches,)
- Ophiasis Alopecia areata (Hair loss in the sides and back of the head, commonly seen in older men.)
The bald patches tend to be smooth with no redness or irritation, but may feel itchy prior to the hair falling out.
To get more answers, I reached out to Dermatologist Donna Ward. She received a medical degree from the University of Chicago, and has been practicing dermatology for over 18 years. (And for the cherry on top, she’s a Whitney Young alum!! Go dolphins!) Here are some common questions related to the disorder, answered by one of the best.
TrueStar.Life: What are the main causes of alopecia?
Donna Ward: Depends on the ethnic group. In African Americans the leading cause is related more to hair styling practices. In other ethnic groups the leading cause is related more to inflammatory scalp conditions, but can also be related to low iron or low vitamin D intake.
TSL: Is mental health a prominent cause of hair loss?
DW: In general, no. Acute major stress can cause hair loss. That includes the death of a loved one, or a major life change.
TSL: How long does the hair take to grow back?
DW: Depends on the cause of the loss. In some severe cases it could be permanent. In less severe cases it could range anywhere from 2-6 months.
TSL: Are there any treatments for alopecia?
DW: In general the treatments are anti-inflammatory but can also work directly at the level of the hair follicle to stimulate hair growth.
TSL: How common is alopecia?
DW: It is very common. I see it in my practice on a daily basis.
TSL: Is there a specific age where alopecia tends to occur?
DW: There is no general age. The condition can show up at any time.
TSL: Are certain racial demographics more prone to the condition?
DW: Certain types of alopecia are more common in certain races i.e. central centrifugal scarring alopecia is almost exclusively seen in African Americans.
TSL: Is alopecia genetic?
DW: In the vast majority of cases, no.
TSL: What can be done to help the growth/recovery happen faster?
DW: If it’s related to styling practices, I would avoid chemicals and tight hairstyles. If its an underlying inflammatory condition, I would recommend treating the underlying inflammation.
TSL: Is there any overall advice you would give to those dealing with and/or recovering from alopecia?
DW: Be sure to eat well and get tons of vitamin D in your regular diet.
Now that we know the basics, here’s the burning question that’s probably in everyone’s minds: Why is something that is said to be so common, talked about so little?
A good example of this is Jada Pinkett Smith. We all saw that wild smack that Will Smith gave Chris Rock at the Grammys’ because of her discontent with his “G.I. Jane” joke. This one example goes to show how unaware the media is of this medical condition, thus the lack of sympathy to those that deal with alopecia. Let’s break this trend of misinformation and lack of knowledge by making others aware during Alopecia Awareness Month. To help, you can always share posts just like this one to your peers, friends, co-workers, and family members.
Like they say, knowledge really is power. Now that you have some, be kind to those suffering with this condition.
By Jada Strong, Freshman, Whitney Young Magnet High School