What Is Alopecia?
Alopecia is a medical term for a common autoimmune disorder that often results in unpredictable hair loss. This disorder causes hair to fall out thus forming small patches on the scalp, or other hair growing parts of the body. Only a few patches of hair loss occur in most people. But, in few cases, the hair loss can be quite extensive and significant. In few more other cases, it can lead to complete loss of hair on the scalp, a condition referred to as alopecia totalis. It can also cause loss of all body hair in a condition referred to as alopecia universalis.
The most common form of alopecia is called Alopecia areata, here after in this article referred to as alopecia. The alopecia condition is closely associated with hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. These are conditions as a result of production of very high or very low amounts of thyroid hormone from the thyroid gland respectively. People with these hormonal imbalances are thought to be pre-disposed to autoimmune conditions such as alopecia. This is a condition that causes hair loss in people with the autoimmune thyroid disease. This condition causes hair loss in small, discrete circular areas. It can cause significant baldness, but it is a rather a temporary situation which does not progress in most cases. This condition is probably genetic and it is associated with other conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome and Lupus erythematosus. Polycystic ovarian syndrome manifests itself as diffuse hair loss among other symptoms such as irregular periods and acne. Lupus erythematosus is associated with hair loss through scarring.
Most cases of alopecia occur before the age of the age of 30. However, the condition can affect anyone regardless of their age and gender.
What Causes Hair Loss?
Hair can be lost by natural causes or by illness. Each of these happens under different conditions. Hair loss is a normal occurrence in the growth curve of a human being. Because of hormonal changes, even women can lose hair after childbirth or when they reach menopause. Balding is a common and normally acceptable phenomenon among most men as they reach adulthood. Due to natural growth process, both elderly men and women lose hair to different degrees. However, this depends on genetic factors, as some people do not lose any significant amount of hair.
Hair loss can occur when hair follicles have been inflamed. The hair follicles are dynamic organs found in the mammalian skin referred from which hair grows. On average, the scalp of the human head has approximately 100,000 hair follicles. Each follicle will grow approximately 20 individual hairs in the lifetime of the human being. Hair growth from these follicles is not continuous. Follicles grow hair in different phases. Thus, at any given time, some follicles are growing hair, whereas some are in a resting phase. In the resting phase, the hair is shed and a rejuvenated hair grows in its place. Because of this, you cannot notice hair loss as new hair is growing in close balance and coordination with the loss.
Inflammation of hair follicles can happen as a result of abnormal body functioning or illness. Examples include diseases such as cancer, pneumonia or hormonal imbalance. In some cases, medical interventions and therapy like those involved in cancer can trigger hair loss. However, this is largely a temporary situation and hair can grow back once treatment is successful. An example of hormonal imbalance of the body is characterized by an abnormally functioning thyroid gland. An abnormal thyroid gland can produce a high amount of hormones, hyperthyroidism, or too little hormones, hypothyroidism. Each of this has different impacts on hair growth.
Consequences of Losing Hair
Other than for aesthetic purposes, hair provides a degree of protection against the elements. People with a head full of hair are said to be more protected from the scorching sun rays. Thus, when a person has lost hair, he or she is more exposed to the sun and will likely seek refuge in a head gear or cap when it is hot. Equally, in cold conditions, it is harder for a person with a bald head to keep warm.
The eyelashes and eyebrows protect the eye against debris. Loss of this type of hair is rare through natural process. However, it can be lost through health complication such as alopecia. Individuals who have lost this hair will most certainly seek alternative ways to prevent dust and rain water from getting into the eyes. Some of these substances can have contaminants harmful to the body and can lead to blindness.
Loss of hair is not limited to the prominently hairy parts only. Even the ears and the nose can lose hair. These hairs prevent entry of contaminants in dust and micro-organisms. Particularly, the micro-organisms can cause irreparable damage to these organs.
Alopecia does not make people sick directly. Neither is it contagious. But it can have a far reaching psychological impact on a patient. Firstly, it’s the aesthetic value. Some patients can be so unsettled and will seek ways to cover their heads or hair transplants. This unsettling feeling leads to lowering of confidence as well as self-esteem. It more serious cases, hair loss can lead to depression and such cases call for counseling.
What Causes of Alopecia?
Alopecia occurs when the white blood cells attack the cells in hair follicles. As a result, the hair follicles shrink and slow down the growth of new hair. The exact reason why the white blood cells or the immune system attacks the follicles is not known. From observations, it is highly likely that genetic factors are behind this condition, as it is likely to occur in a person whose family member has the condition. It has been observed that about two in ten people have family members with the conditions. This is a relatively acceptable indicator towards heredity. Observation has also shown that people with alopecia have been associated with the occurrence of other autoimmune conditions among family members. This is additional indicator that shores up the hereditary theory.
The causal agent of alopecia has been related to vitigilo, which is an autoimmune disease of the skin. This condition triggers the body to attack the melanin producing cells forming white patches on the skin. It is possible that the conditions are caused by a similar pathogen due to similarities in manifestation. They would also have common genetic factors and similar types of immune cells and cytokines behind the disease. This is because their symptoms are typically those of inflamed patches on the skin, the scalp being a skin.
In some other quarters, the condition is rumored to be caused by stress. However, there is no scientific information that has been generated that points at stress as the causal agent. So far, the hereditary theory is the more likely reason behind alopecia.
Symptoms of Alopecia
The more prominent symptoms of alopecia are the patches of hair loss on the scalp of the head. Small patches from which hair has been lost appear mainly on the scalp. However, these patches can appear on any area where hair grows including the beard and eye lashes. Loss of hair can occur in a short time, that is, in a few days or over a period of a few weeks.
The onset of hair loss may be s characterized by itching or a burning sensation. The hair loss does not signify total destruction of the hair follicle from which hair grows. Hair can re-grow if the inflammation of the follicle is stemmed. Some of the patches may re-grow hair spontaneously in a short period of time in some people.
As the condition is thought to be hereditary with no known permanent solution, the patches may re-occur in cycles .Some patients can recover completely, or have just a few episodes in their lifetime. Others will have recurrent episodes throughout the year. In other cases, the patches become more extensive as they recur.
A small section of the population with the condition goes on to develop alopecia totalis or alopecia universalis. This is characterized by permanent loss of hair on the scalp, or the whole body respectively. Alopecia has also been observed to spread to the fingernails and toenails. Here, it causes minor changes to the nails and they cannot grow properly.
Diagnosis of Alopecia
Alopecia manifests itself in prominent symptoms that can easily be observed. A physician examines a patient for these symptoms to easily diagnose the condition. Patches where the hair has been lost can be examined using a microscope. A doctor can equally note the extent of loss of hair loss by estimating the area of the patch.
Skin biopsies are more reliable in identifying patches as a result of alopecia. In this case, a sample is cut from the affected area to be tested in a laboratory. When diagnosis is required to be determined beyond reasonable doubt, a blood test can be used to confirm or rule out autoimmune disorders. However, the symptoms of alopecia are distinctive and easily distinguishable from those of other complications. This makes it rather straightforward to diagnose it.
Alopecia affects both men and women. There are additional clinical signs that are used in the diagnosis of alopecia. They include, growth of white hair growing in the affected area of hair loss, growth of hair narrower at the bottom as compared to the tips, as well as hair breaking before reaching the skin surface.
Treatment of Alopecia
There is no definite cure known for alleviating alopecia. However, there are interventions suggested by medical practitioners that help the hair to re-grow faster. Interventions can be systemic, invasive or through chemotherapy. The treatment options available are intended to block the immune system from attacking the hair follicles or to enhance regrowth of hair.
The commonly used intervention is the use of corticosteroids. These are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that can suppress the immune system. The corticosteroids can be applied through local injection, topical application in ointment form or swallowed in tablet form.
The choice of treatment depends on the age and extent of hair loss. Alopecia can be regarded as mild or extensive. People with 50 percent or less hair loss on the scalp are considered to have a mild form of alopecia.
Mild alopecia can be treated through intra-lesion injection with corticosteroids. The steroid is injected into the bare patches of the skin with a tiny needle every few weeks. Hair grows rapidly in a few weeks. Also, mild alopecia can be treated using topical creams to stimulate hair growth. Application can be stopped once hair has grown back on the patch.
More extensive alopecia can be treated using oral corticosteroids. The steroids swallowed in pill form are intended to suppress disease activity and regrow hair.it can also be treated using topical immunotherapy which involves applying certain chemicals on the scalp. However, some of these chemicals can cause allergic reactions in patients. Besides, a patient is required to use the chemicals continually to maintain regrowth of hair.
Only on the advice of a qualified physician should one consider hair transplant. If the area below the scalp is inflamed, the transplanted follicles are highly susceptible to attack by the immune system. If the alopecia patch is small and not inflamed, it is possible to undergo successful hair transplant.
There are suggestions of use home remedies to enhance growth of hair on the alopecia patches. These include the use of green tea, almond oil, rosemary, honey or coconut milk on the scalp. Other suggested remedies include rubbing onion or garlic juice on the scalp or any part of the body that has lost hair. Some patients have resorted to use of alternative treatment methods such as acupuncture. There is little evidence, however, of the effectiveness of these methods. The interventions are not discouraged as they are not known to have any observable harm.
The use of these interventions, with their different level of effectiveness, only serves to enable hair to re-grow in alopecia patches. Besides, counseling can play an important role in the management of alopecia. Patients can be advised to accept changes that occur to their hair. to mitigate psychological reactions to the condition.