Alopecia: What it is and how to cope

Alopecia is a common autoimmune skin disease that causes sudden hair loss as a person’s immune system attacks their hair follicles. The most common cause of alopecia is said to be severe stress, and it affects as many as 6.8 million people in the U.S. alone.

Hair loss usually begins in small patches and can occur on the scalp, and in some cases, the eyebrows, eyelashes, face, and other parts of the body. The condition, which has no cure, can result in total hair loss, called alopecia universalis, which may prevent hair from growing back. The extent of hair loss and regrowth varies from person to person and can happen throughout a person’s life.

The condition can cause psychological and emotional distress. Though there is no cure, there are treatments that can help alleviate the stress and embarrassment many who suffer from alopecia can feel.

woman with bald patch
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Types of alopecia

There are several different types of alopecia that a person may be diagnosed with. Alopecia areata is when one or more quarter-sized patches of hair fall out either from the scalp or body. Alopecia totalis occurs when you have hair loss across the entire scalp. Alopecia universalis, mentioned above, can result in total hair loss.

Diffuse alopecia areata can look similar to female- or male-pattern hair loss, resulting in an unexpected thinning of the hair all over the scalp. Ophiasis alopecia is when the hair on the sides and lower back of the scalp fall out. Your primary care physician can do a health check and diagnose appropriately.

The emotional toll of alopecia

According to the National Alopecia Areata Association, though the symptoms of alopecia areata don’t usually cause physical pain, many admit it does cause emotional pain, which can feel “as serious (and can feel the same) as physical pain and can lead to feelings of sadness, depression and anxiety.”

Severe depression, anxiety, and social isolation can happen if symptoms are left untreated. Like any medical condition, finding a community of people who also suffer from alopecia can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and anxiety an autoimmune disease can bring.

How to cope

In addition to finding a community of people to talk to and share experiences, if you are suffering severe symptoms, get in touch with your primary care provider. It’s critical to let them know how you are feeling so they can assess if therapy, medication, support groups, or other options available could benefit you.

Find other ways to decompress from stress like walking, practicing yoga, deep breathing exercises, or meditation. The more you can incorporate these into your daily routine, the better equipped you will be to handle stressful situations and feel more confident in your daily life.

man with alopecia

Treatment options

There are a few different treatment options available depending on the severity of your alopecia. Medical treatments you can rub into your scalp, like Rogaine and corticosteroid creams, help stimulate hair growth. However, always consult your doctor before beginning any over-the-counter (OTC) treatments, as they may have prescription options available.

Steroid injections are a common treatment for mild, patchy alopecia to help stimulate hair growth in bald spots. These injections should be repeated every one or two months to regrow hair.

There are also natural treatment options to try before more extensive interventions. Some people with alopecia have seen hair growth through aromatherapy, acupuncture, microneedling, taking probiotics, and low-level laser therapy (LLLT). Again, the results are dependent on the extent of hair loss.

Alopecia may be the result of several factors, including family history, another autoimmune or skin condition, or severe stress. In addition to hair loss, people with alopecia may find they experience more loss in cold weather and that their fingernails and toenails become red and brittle.

While there is no cure, there are some specific steps you can take that may help you feel less anxious when you are out in public. The National Alopecia Areata Association has an online shop with hair accessories and products to make you feel more confident in public. Wig companies like Godiva’s Secret Wigs have a ton of options available and also provide online video tutorials to help you learn how to put a wig on and style it. You can also try baseball caps, hats, and scarves to help protect you from the sun.

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