Many healthy people live with alopecia areata, a condition where your hair falls out in patches. Even if you have mild or severe hair loss, you may still be in very good health.
With alopecia areata, your immune system attacks your hair follicles, which leads to hair loss. Your hair may come out in patches or clumps about the size of a quarter.
Losing hair doesn’t mean you’re not healthy. Even though alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease, most people who have it are healthy. For most, hair loss is their only symptom.
What’s Normal With Alopecia Areata?
Everyone’s alopecia areata is different. It’s also unpredictable.
You may have a few patches without hair. This is called patchy alopecia areata, and it’s the most common type.
If you lose all the hair on your head, it’s called alopecia areata totalis.
If you have no hair on your scalp, face, or body, it’s called alopecia areata universalis.
You may have hair loss just once in your life, or bouts of hair loss here and there for most of your life. Your hair may grow back, or it may not.
Who Gets Alopecia Areata?
Anyone can get alopecia areata. About 2.5 million people in the U.S. have it. About half are men and half are women.
You can get alopecia areata at any age. It often develops in your teens, 20s, or 30s. You may also develop it as a child. If it starts before you’re 10 years old, it may advance more quickly.
You may be more likely to have alopecia areata if you have another autoimmune disease like psoriasis, thyroid disease, or vitiligo, or allergies like hay fever.
Most people with alopecia areata don’t have a family history of the condition. But if you have a family member who has it, your risk may be higher. You may also be more likely to get it if your family member has an autoimmune condition like diabetes, lupus, or thyroid disease.
What Causes Alopecia Areata?
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that causes your body to attack your healthy hair follicles. Doctors aren’t sure why your immune system does this, but researchers believe it’s linked to certain genes.
It may also be triggered by environmental factors.
Triggers may include major life changes like:
- Viruses or other illnesses
How Can You Be Healthy With an Autoimmune Condition Like Alopecia Areata?
Most people with alopecia areata are healthy.
Hair loss is usually the only symptom, but you may also see changes in your nails. If so, talk to your doctor. Nail problems may lead to pain and get in the way of your daily activities.
It’s normal for hair loss to cause stress in your day-to-day life. You may worry it means you have a serious disease.
It’s common for people with alopecia areata to worry that it’s a sign that they’re in poor health. But alopecia areata doesn’t make you unhealthy. It doesn’t mean you have a serious medical problem. For example, it’s not a sign of cancer.
Your risk of other autoimmune diseases like thyroid disease may be higher, but it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically develop one.
What Can You Do About Alopecia Areata?
Even though your immune cells are attacking your hair follicles, the follicles are still alive, which means they may regrow. If your hair loss is mild, it may grow back on its own. Or it may grow back with the right treatment.
If you have patches of hair loss, talk to a dermatologist (a doctor who treats skin conditions). They have training and expertise with hair loss and how to diagnose it and can help you find the best treatment for you.
Common treatments for alopecia areata include:
- Injections like corticosteroids
- Oral medication like corticosteroid pills
- Phototherapy or light treatments
- Topical creams and ointments, like minoxidil and corticosteroids
- Topical or oral immunotherapy
If you have mild hair loss, a topical corticosteroid or minoxidil may help. If you have serious hair loss, your doctor may recommend oral corticosteroids or immunotherapy.
You can also try emerging treatments like platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections. Your doctor may recommend joining a clinical trial. There are many trials in the works right now that are looking at new treatments.
Not every treatment works for everyone. You may have to try a few treatments before you find one that regrows your hair.
Regrowing your hair is a slow process. Even treatments that work take time.
If you only have a few patches, your doctor may recommend a wait-and-see approach. It’s possible the hair will grow back on its own.
Photo Credit: Tara Moore / Getty Images
American Academy of Dermatology Association: “Hair Loss Types: Alopecia Areata.”
Cleveland Clinic: “Alopecia Areata.”
National Alopecia Areata Foundation: “What you need to know about alopecia areata related conditions.”
National Organization for Rare Disorders: “Alopecia Areata.”
North Pacific Dermatology: “Hair Loss Treatments - Don't Waste Your Money on a Scam.”
National Institutes of Health: “Alopecia Areata.”
University of Florida Health: “Alopecia Areata.”
Yale Medicine: “Alopecia Areata.”