What is Alopecia?
Most people experience hair loss as they age. However, more and more people are discovering that their hair is increasingly becoming thinner, balding patches have surfaced and their scalps are clearly more visible when looking in the mirror. Hair loss does not only affect men, it affects women too - of all ages, even children and teenagers!
Alopecia is the medical term used to describe hair loss or baldness. For many men and women experiencing alopecia, it can be emotionally devastating and traumatic. Quality of life is often affected which can eventually lead to severe depression and anxiety.
This condition may affect any part of the body that is covered in hair including the scalp, eyebrows, beard or pubic area. There are various types of male or female pattern baldness associated with hair loss that are classified by cause. Some are permanent while other types are temporary.
Permanent hair loss may be classified by the following:
- Male-pattern baldness is also known as androgenetic alopecia and usually affects men in their teens or early 20s. Androgenetic alopecia is distinguished by hair on the sides of the head (at the temples) and balding on the sides of the head.
- Female-pattern baldness is also known as androgenetic alopecia. It is very seldom that women experience complete hair loss – they may lose hair in patches and it usually only starts to thin at the front, sides or crown.
- Cicatricial (scarring) alopecia is also known as scarring alopecia. This type of hair loss destroys the hair follicle and replaces the follicle with a scar tissue – it causes permanent hair loss. Sometimes, no symptoms are obvious and hair loss is gradual. In other cases, itching, burning or pain may occur. If the scalp is affected, some scaling and redness may be evident.
Temporary hair loss
- Alopecia areata tends to occur in small, round bald spots. Hair loss or bald patches usually occur on the scalp but it may also affect other areas with hair such as eyebrows, eyelashes or beard. If hair loss occurs in one spot only, usually on the head, it is known as alopeciaareata monolocularis. If hair is lost on the entire scalp, it is known alopecia totalis. If hair loss occurs on the entire body, including pubic hair, then this condition is known as alopecia universalis.
- Telogen effluvium is a condition characterized by a sudden loss of hair as a result of an interruption in the normal hair growth cycle. The hair generally starts thinning and falls out of the scalp which is more noticeable when you wash or comb your hair.
- Traction alopecia occurs as a result of certain hairstyles such as braids, tight ponytails, cornrows, chignons, buns or twists that are worn regularly. It is caused by pulling (chronic traction) on the hair follicle and signs of this type of hair loss involve tension headaches, itchy, red scalp, random bald patches and hair breakage around the scalp.
What Causes Alopecia?
There are various causes for specific types of alopecia as well as other underlying factors.
The causes of specific types of alopecia include:
- Pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia) occurs as a result of heredity factors. It affects the age at which you start balding, the pattern, developmental speed and extent of your hair loss
- Cicatricial (scarring) alopecia is permanent and occurs when the hair follicle is scarred and damaged by inflammation. This condition appears in numerous skin conditions.
- Alopecia areata is defined as an autoimmune disease. It is believed that genetic factors may cause you to develop alopecia areata.
- Telogen effluvium is caused by a change to your normal cycle as a result of physical or emotional stress (high fever, weight loss, loss of a family member, nutritional deficiencies or surgery)
- Traction alopecia is due to hairstyles that pull your hair back too tightly or excessive hairstyling
Other factors that may contribute to alopecia include poor nutrition, certain medications, diseases such as diabetes and lupus as well as medical treatments such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Hormonal changes such as pregnancy, menopause, an overactive or underactive thyroid and scalp infections like ringworms can cause hair loss.
A hair-pulling disorder known as trichotillomania is a mental illness which causes people to have the irresistible urge to pull hair from their scalp or any other area of their body. In addition, hair treatments such as bleaching, dyeing, tight braiding, blow drying, straightening or hot curlers can cause scarring of the hair follicles and thinning of hair.
The diagnosis of alopecia is based on your physical symptoms, family and medical history. Your health practitioner will check if any of your hairs are broken off and also want to know the pattern and rate of hair loss.
Certain tests may also be performed to further determine the cause of alopecia and include:
- Pull test where several hairs are pulled to see how many come out
- Skin scrapings involves a sample of skin or few hairs taken from the scalp to determine whether an infection is the cause of hair loss
- Punch biopsy involves a small section of the skin’s deepest layers been removed (this test is usually done when it is difficult to confirm a diagnosis)
- Screening tests to determine whether other diseases are the cause of hair loss
Help for Alopecia
Although there is no cure for alopecia, it is estimated that 50% of patient’s hair will grow back in one year without treatment. Approximately 90% of people with hair loss, hair will eventually grow back while in the other 10% of cases, only some or no hair will grow back. There are several treatment options available for alopecia ranging from corticosteroids, steroid injections, phototherapy, hair transplantation or scalp reduction.
Corticosteroids may be administered orally, injected or applied topically – these drugs do however, have some harsh side effects. Steroid injections are typically used for small areas of hair loss such as the eyebrows. Phototherapy, often used to treat skin disorders, can also help to stimulate hair growth and improve the appearance of thinning hair. Hair transplantation and scalp reduction are surgical procedures used to cover up bald areas.
Natural and holistic treatments are a gentler yet still effective alternative to treating hair loss than the harsh chemicals found in synthetic over-the-counter and prescription products. Using herbal and homeopathic remedies helps to promote healthy, strong hair and supports circulation, hormonal balance and thyroid functioning.
Carefully selected herbal ingredients such as Ginkgo biloba, Rosmarinus officinale and Xanthoxylum clavaherculis promotes blood circulation which ensures that nutrient rich blood reaches the hair follicles. In addition, Equisetum arvense, Avena sativa and Echinacea also help to stimulate and nourish tiny hair follicles to encourage abundant hair.
More Information on Alopecia
Tips to cope with alopecia
In order to cope with and manage alopecia, follow these useful tips:
- Change your diet by eating plenty of iron found in meat and liver as well as green, leafy vegetables and fresh fruit
- Drink plenty of water to flush out toxins in the body’s system
- Increase your intake of vitamin supplements such as zinc and magnesium to stimulate hair growth
- Use makeup to hide or reduce hair loss, for instance coloring in fake eyebrows
- Wear sunglasses and sunscreen to protect the eyes and skin from the sun and environment
- Consider wearing a wig, hairpiece or try hair weaving (sewing or braiding human or synthetic hair into your existing hair)
- Wear brightly colored or patterned scarves, bandanas, caps or hats on your head – women can accessorize with pretty earrings and let this become your signature style
- Allow your family and friends to support you – remember that they love you just the way you are
- Be gentle with yourself, learn to value the person on the inside rather than the outside
- Reduce stress and anxiety by practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga or meditation
- Join a support group where you and others can share your experiences and help you deal with hair loss