What is Alopecia?
Alopecia is the medical term for hair loss or baldness. While most associate hair loss with male or female pattern baldness, there are actually numerous causes for alopecia. Hair loss is further classified by type or cause.
Androgenetic alopecia is also called pattern baldness. This form of hair loss usually occurs due to loss of specific types of hormones called androgens. In males this can often mean total hair loss, though many men still retain some hair on the sides of their head. Women seldom have complete hair loss, but may lose hair in patches.
Alopecia areata is a type of hair loss that tends to occur in spots, as opposed to the pattern baldness. Alopecia areata monolocularis means that hair loss occurs in one spot only, usually on the head. Alopecia areata multilocularis means that hair loss occurs in several spots, and loss may not be limited to the head.
Unlike the genetic causes associated with androgenetic alopecia, alopecia areata is thought to be caused by an autoimmune disease. Antibodies react to hair follicles as if they were foreign to the body, and attack them. The problem can be addressed, especially if done in the early stages. Treatment includes using steroids, and the medication minoxidil to help stimulate hair regrowth.
In some cases, certain conditions are associated with hair loss. Many autoimmune diseases, like lupus and AIDS can cause hair loss. At other times, too much thyroid, or hypothyroidism is responsible for hair loss. Fungal conditions like ringworm may also result in baldness. Those suffering from eczema may experience some hair loss as well.
Certain medications are associated with hair loss. This is particularly the case with drugs used for chemotherapy. Generally when chemotherapy ends, hairs regrow. Other medications that may cause hair loss include:
- Thyroid medications
- Blood thinners like aspirin, heparin, and warfarin
- Mood stabilizing drugs like Tegratol® (carbamazepine)
- Oral contraceptives
This is by no means an exhaustive list of potential drugs that can cause alopecia. Further, these medications have a risk factor for causing hair loss, but not all people will experience baldness. In many cases, taking the risk is worth it, because the benefits of using the medication are quite high.
Hair loss may further be caused by patients who suffer from an illness called Trichotillomania. In this condition people have an impulse to pluck out their own hair. This condition is a compulsion, and thus generally cannot be resisted. Like cutting, it is thought that patients may pluck out more hair in response to external stressors. The plucking can cause injury to the hair shafts so that hair regrowth is difficult.
Children with trichotillomania have a very good chance of recovery through counseling, and psychiatric medications. However, it is unclear which psychiatric medications work best. Adults may have a more difficult time recovering. One possible treatment, which is more applicable for men, is to keep the hair shaved so the patient cannot pull out individual hairs. As well, tranquilizers may be used to temporarily ease the compulsion.
My daughter is 13 and she has been suffering with alopecia areata since she was seven years old. This is a distressing condition, especially for a young girl whose main concern is her looks! She has been exceptionally brave about it however, and thankfully has some really supportive friends.
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