Understanding the Different Forms of Alopecia
Alopecia is a general term for hair loss, and it can be classified into several types, with the most common ones being androgenetic alopecia, alopecia areata, and telogen effluvium. Alopecia can affect people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, manifesting as anything from small, localized patches of hair loss to complete baldness.
Alopecia areata, in particular, is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles, leading to hair loss in round or oval patches on the scalp or other areas of the body. The exact cause of alopecia areata is not fully understood, but it is believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Stress, infections, and hormonal changes may also play a role in triggering the condition.
The etymology of the word “alopecia” can be traced back to the Greek word “alopex,” which means “fox.” This association is likely due to the hair loss pattern observed in foxes, who are known to shed their fur in a patchy manner during specific seasons or when afflicted by mange. The term “areata” comes from the Latin word “areatus,” meaning “patchy” or “occurring in small areas,” which accurately describes the hair loss pattern observed in alopecia areata.
In summary, alopecia is a term used to describe various types of hair loss, including the autoimmune disorder alopecia areata. The exact cause of alopecia areata is not fully understood, but it is believed to involve genetic and environmental factors. The word “alopecia” has its origins in the Greek language and is derived from the word for “fox,” while “areata” comes from Latin and refers to the patchy nature of the hair loss.
History of Alopecia
Alopecia, specifically alopecia areata, has a long history, with evidence of its existence dating back to ancient times. While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact moment of discovery, here is an overview of the history of alopecia:
- Ancient history: The earliest descriptions of hair loss resembling alopecia areata can be found in ancient Egyptian texts. Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical document dating back to around 1550 BCE, contains references to hair loss conditions and suggests treatments like onion and animal fat.
- Greek and Roman eras: Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived between 460-370 BCE, also discussed hair loss in his writings. Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder, in the 1st century CE, described a condition similar to alopecia areata and suggested treatments like pigeon droppings and beetroot.
- Middle Ages: Persian polymath Al-Razi, also known as Rhazes (865-925 CE), wrote about hair loss conditions in his comprehensive medical encyclopedia, “Al-Hawi.” Another Persian physician, Avicenna (980-1037 CE), also made mention of alopecia in his book “The Canon of Medicine,” which was an influential medical text in Europe and the Middle East for centuries.
- Modern understanding: The term “alopecia areata” was first used by French dermatologist François Henri Hallopeau in 1873. He coined the term to describe the round, patchy hair loss he observed in some patients. Since then, our understanding of alopecia areata has significantly improved. It is now known to be an autoimmune disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles, leading to hair loss.
Throughout history, various treatments have been suggested for alopecia areata, ranging from herbal remedies to more invasive approaches. In the past century, scientific advancements have led to a better understanding of the condition’s underlying mechanisms and the development of more targeted treatments, such as corticosteroids, topical immunotherapy, and more recently, JAK inhibitors.
Types of Alopecia
Alopecia itself is not typically associated with skin discoloration. The primary symptom of alopecia is hair loss, which can occur in patches, as diffuse thinning, or even complete baldness, depending on the type of alopecia.
However, some people with alopecia areata may experience a change in the color of their nails, such as pitting or white spots. Additionally, in some cases, the skin in the affected areas may appear slightly lighter or smoother than the surrounding skin, but this is not a common feature of the condition.
Other skin conditions, such as vitiligo, can cause skin discoloration and may coexist with alopecia areata in some individuals, as both are autoimmune disorders. In such cases, skin discoloration may be observed alongside hair loss, but the discoloration is due to the presence of vitiligo rather than the alopecia itself. If you have concerns about skin discoloration or hair loss, it’s essential to consult a dermatologist for proper evaluation and diagnosis.
Alopecia can be classified into several types, each with its own characteristics, causes, and treatments. The most common types of alopecia include:
- Androgenetic alopecia: Also known as male-pattern baldness or female-pattern baldness, androgenetic alopecia is the most common form of hair loss. It is caused by a combination of genetic and hormonal factors and typically presents as a receding hairline and thinning hair in men or diffuse thinning in women.
- Alopecia areata: This type of alopecia is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks hair follicles, causing hair loss in round or oval patches on the scalp or other parts of the body. In some cases, it can progress to alopecia totalis (complete scalp hair loss) or alopecia universalis (total body hair loss).
- Telogen effluvium: This form of hair loss occurs when a significant number of hair follicles are pushed into the resting (telogen) phase prematurely, leading to diffuse thinning and shedding. It is often triggered by stress, illness, medications, or hormonal changes, and is usually temporary.
- Anagen effluvium: This type of hair loss is characterized by a rapid loss of hair during the active growth (anagen) phase, often due to exposure to toxins, radiation, or certain medications like chemotherapy. Anagen effluvium can be temporary or permanent, depending on the cause and extent of the damage to hair follicles.
- Traction alopecia: This form of hair loss is caused by prolonged tension or pulling on the hair, often due to tight hairstyles like ponytails, braids, or extensions. Over time, the constant tension can lead to hair breakage and permanent damage to hair follicles, resulting in hair loss.
- Scarring alopecia: Also known as cicatricial alopecia, this type of hair loss involves the destruction of hair follicles and replacement with scar tissue, leading to permanent hair loss. Scarring alopecia can be caused by various factors, including inflammatory skin conditions, infections, or physical injuries.
These are some of the most common types of alopecia, but there are other, less common forms of hair loss as well. If you are concerned about hair loss, it is essential to consult a dermatologist for proper evaluation and diagnosis to determine the specific type of alopecia and the appropriate course of treatment.
Treatments for Alopecia
The most common treatments for different types of alopecia vary depending on the underlying cause and the specific form of hair loss. Here are some of the most common treatments for each type of alopecia:
- Androgenetic alopecia:
- Topical minoxidil (Rogaine): This over-the-counter medication can be applied to the scalp to stimulate hair growth and slow down hair loss.
- Oral finasteride (Propecia): A prescription medication used to block the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which contributes to hair loss in genetically susceptible individuals.
- Hair transplantation: A surgical procedure that involves transplanting healthy hair follicles from one part of the scalp to areas of hair loss.
- Low-level laser therapy (LLLT): A non-invasive treatment that uses red light to stimulate hair growth.
- Alopecia areata:
- Topical corticosteroids: Creams or ointments applied to the affected areas to suppress the immune system and promote hair regrowth.
- Corticosteroid injections: Intralesional steroid injections directly into the affected areas to reduce inflammation and stimulate hair growth.
- Topical immunotherapy: The application of chemicals like diphenylcyclopropenone (DPCP) or squaric acid dibutyl ester (SADBE) to the scalp to induce an allergic reaction, which can help redirect the immune system and promote hair growth.
- Oral JAK inhibitors: A class of drugs that inhibit Janus kinase (JAK) enzymes and have shown promise in treating alopecia areata in some cases.
- Telogen effluvium:
- Addressing the underlying cause: Identifying and treating the cause of the telogen effluvium, such as stopping a medication, managing stress, or correcting nutritional deficiencies.
- Hair regrowth usually occurs spontaneously once the underlying cause is resolved.
- Anagen effluvium:
- Addressing the underlying cause: Identifying and treating the cause of the anagen effluvium, such as discontinuing chemotherapy or other toxic treatments.
- Hair regrowth typically occurs within a few months of resolving the cause, though the hair may have a different texture or color.
- Traction alopecia:
- Changing hairstyles: Avoiding tight hairstyles and reducing tension on the hair to prevent further hair loss and allow damaged hair follicles to recover.
- Minoxidil (Rogaine): Topical minoxidil may be used to encourage hair regrowth in some cases.
- Scarring alopecia:
- Anti-inflammatory medications: Oral or topical corticosteroids, antibiotics, or immunosuppressants may be used to control inflammation and prevent further hair follicle destruction.
- Hair transplantation: In some cases, once the inflammation is under control, hair transplantation may be considered to restore the appearance of hair in the affected areas.
Consult a dermatologist or healthcare professional for proper evaluation and diagnosis to determine the appropriate treatment plan for each specific case.
The study published in JAMA Dermatology on May 29, 2019 titled “All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality Risks Associated With Alopecia Areata: A Korean Nationwide Population-Based Study” investigated the association between alopecia areata (AA) and all-cause mortality, as well as cause-specific mortality, in a Korean population.
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder that leads to hair loss on the scalp and other parts of the body. The researchers conducted a population-based cohort study using data from the Korean National Health Insurance Service, which included 64,642 individuals with AA and 258,568 matched controls without AA. The study followed the subjects from 2006 to 2015.
The results of the study showed that individuals with AA had a higher all-cause mortality risk than those without AA. In particular, they found that AA patients had an increased risk of mortality due to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and respiratory diseases. However, the absolute risk of death for individuals with AA was still relatively low.
The study highlights the potential importance of monitoring and managing comorbid conditions in individuals with AA to reduce the risk of mortality. Further research is needed to confirm these findings in different populations and to explore potential underlying mechanisms linking AA to increased mortality risk.
There are numerous other studies related to alopecia, focusing on different aspects such as causes, risk factors, treatments, and psychological impacts. Here are brief descriptions of a few notable studies:
- A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2014 explored the genetic basis of androgenetic alopecia. The researchers identified 12 genetic loci associated with the risk of developing male-pattern baldness, providing insights into the genetic architecture of this condition and potential targets for future treatments.
- A systematic review published in JAMA Dermatology in 2018 investigated the efficacy and safety of Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors for the treatment of alopecia areata. The review concluded that JAK inhibitors appear to be effective in promoting hair regrowth in patients with alopecia areata, although more research is needed to establish optimal dosing and treatment duration.
- A study published in The Lancet in 2016 examined the effectiveness of a topical application of the JAK inhibitor ruxolitinib for the treatment of alopecia areata. The results showed that a significant number of participants experienced significant hair regrowth after 3 to 6 months of treatment.
- A study published in JAMA Dermatology in 2017 explored the relationship between alopecia areata and mental health. The researchers found that patients with alopecia areata had a higher prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation compared to the general population, emphasizing the importance of addressing mental health in the management of this condition.
- A 2020 study published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology investigated the role of vitamin D in alopecia areata. The researchers found that patients with alopecia areata had significantly lower serum vitamin D levels compared to healthy controls, suggesting a potential role for vitamin D supplementation in the management of this condition.
These studies represent just a small fraction of the vast body of research related to alopecia. Further research continues to enhance our understanding of the causes, risk factors, and treatments for various forms of hair loss, as well as the psychological impact of living with alopecia.
- Heilmann, S., Kiefer, A. K., Fricker, N., Drichel, D., Hillmer, A. M., Herold, C., … & Becker, T. (2014). Androgenetic alopecia: identification of four genetic risk loci and evidence for the contribution of WNT signaling to its etiology. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 134(6), 1763-1770. https://doi.org/10.1038/jid.2014.46
- Liu, L. Y., Craiglow, B. G., Dai, F., & King, B. A. (2018). Tofacitinib for the treatment of severe alopecia areata and variants: a study of 90 patients. JAMA Dermatology, 154(1), 20-27. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamadermatol.2017.3695
- Kennedy Crispin, M., Ko, J. M., Craiglow, B. G., Li, S., Shankar, G., Urban, J. R., … & King, B. A. (2016). Safety and efficacy of the JAK inhibitor tofacitinib citrate in patients with alopecia areata. JCI Insight, 1(15), e89776. https://doi.org/10.1172/jci.insight.89776
- Huang, K. P., Mullangi, S., Guo, Y., & Qureshi, A. A. (2017). Autoimmune, atopic, and mental health comorbid conditions associated with alopecia areata in the United States. JAMA Dermatology, 153(7), 698-705. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamadermatol.2017.1135
- Aksu Cerman, A., Sarikaya Solak, S., & Kivanc Altunay, I. (2014). Vitamin D deficiency in alopecia areata. British Journal of Dermatology, 170(6), 1299-1304. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjd.12980
General information on alopecia:
- American Academy of Dermatology. (n.d.). Hair loss. Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/hair-loss
- National Alopecia Areata Foundation. (n.d.). About alopecia areata. Retrieved from https://www.naaf.org/alopecia-areata
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. (2019). Alopecia areata. Retrieved from https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/alopecia-areata