Alopecia areata, the autoimmune disease which causes patches of hair loss, now affects one in every 50 people worldwide. Findings in a new study by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, whose objective was “to provide an evidence-based systematic review on the epidemiology and the burden of alopecia areata”, demand that the condition be given more attention. The study found that not only is alopecia areata the most prevalent autoimmune disorder but that it comes second only to androgenetic alopecia as the most common form of hair loss.
What is alopecia areata?
Alopecia areata is caused by a malfunction of the immune system (the means by which the body naturally protects itself against illness and infection). It is not fully understood why, but some people’s immune systems cease to recognise the hair follicles, regarding them instead as foreign bodies – it then instruct the body’s defences to attack. The result is hair loss, usually in small, coin-sized patches. In some cases, all hair on the scalp is lost (alopecia totalis) or even the entire body (alopecia universalis).
Who is affected?
The Miller School of Medicine’s study found the lifetime incidence of this patchy form of hair loss is approximately 2% worldwide, but could find no evidence that it affects one sex more than the other. It can occur at any age but it most commonly first happens in the twenties and thirties. Those who experience alopecia areata at an early age carry a higher lifetime risk of more extensive hair loss. It is believed that, for some, genetics are a factor: one in five people with alopecia areata have a family history of it. They are also at risk for anxiety, depression, vitiligo and other autoimmune conditions such hypothyroidism.
Is there a cure?
Alopecia areata can cause a great deal of emotional distress, especially if the bald patches are such that careful hairstyling cannot disguise them. While there is, unfortunately, no proven cure, the chances of complete regrowth within a year are good, approximately between 60 and 80% – even with no treatment involved. This latest research confirmed that a relapse is possible at any given time, and there is no way of preventing one. Possible treatments include corticosteroid injections, immunotherapy, minoxidil lotion and ultraviolet light therapy but these are not appropriate in all cases – and many doctors would advocate an initial approach of ‘watchful waiting’.