Alopecia areata is one type of hair loss that typically causes patches of baldness. In some cases, total baldness develops. In many cases, the hair re-grows, typically after several months. In some cases, the hair loss is permanent. Treatments to promote hair re-growth work in some cases.
What is alopecia areata and who is affected?
Alopecia means loss of hair or baldness. There are several different causes and patterns of alopecia. Alopecia areata is one type of hair loss. Estimates of the number of people affected vary between 1 in 1,000 to 2 in 100 at some point in their life. Alopecia areata can occur at any age but most cases first develop in teenagers and children. In about 6 in 10 cases the first patch of hair loss develops before the age of 20 years. Males and females are equally affected in younger age groups but those affected later on are mainly women. The condition tends to be milder when it first develops at an older age.
What are the symptoms of alopecia areata?
The typical pattern is for one or more bald patches to appear on the scalp. These tend to be round in shape, and about the size of a large coin. They develop quite quickly. A relative, friend, or hairdresser may be the first person to notice the bald patch or patches. Apart from the bald patch or patches, the scalp usually looks healthy and there is no scarring. Occasionally, there is some mild redness, mild scaling, mild burning, or a slightly itchy feeling on the bald patches.
The first picture shows several patches of alopecia on the scalp in someone with fairly extensive alopecia areata. The second picture shows an area of alopecia of the beard area.
When a bald patch first develops, it is difficult to predict how it will progress. The following are the main ways it may progress:
- Quite often the bald patch or patches re-grow hair within a few months. If hair grows back, it may not have its usual colour at first and look grey or white for a while. The usual colour eventually returns after several months.
- Sometimes one or more bald patches develop a few weeks after the first one. Sometimes the first bald patch is re-growing hair whilst a new bald patch is developing. It can then appear as if small bald patches rotate around different areas of the scalp over time.
- Sometimes several small bald patches develop and merge into a larger bald area.
- Patches of body hair, beard, eyebrows, or eyelashes may be affected in some cases.
- Large bald patches develop in some people. Some people lose all their scalp hair. This is called alopecia totalis.
- In a small number of cases, all scalp hair, body hair, beard, eyebrows, and eyelashes are lost. This is called alopecia universalis.
- The nails are affected in about 1 in 5 cases and can become pitted or ridged.
Some people become self-conscious, anxious or distressed by the appearance of the hair loss.
What causes alopecia areata?
Alopecia areata is thought to be an autoimmune disease. The immune system makes white blood cells (lymphocytes) and antibodies to protect against foreign objects such as bacteria, viruses, and other germs. In autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part or parts of the body as foreign. In people with alopecia areata, many white blood cells gather around the affected hair roots (hair follicles) which are mistaken as foreign. This causes some mild inflammation which leads in some way to hairs becoming weak and falling out to cause the bald patches.
It is not known why it is common for only certain areas of the scalp to be affected. Also, the affected hair follicles are not destroyed. Affected hair follicles are capable of making normal hair again if the immune reaction goes and the situation returns to normal.
It is not known why alopecia areata or other autoimmune diseases occur. It is thought that something triggers the immune system to react against one or more of the body's own tissues. Possible triggers include: viruses, infection, medicines, or other environmental factors. There is also an inherited factor which makes some people more prone to autoimmune diseases. About 1 in 4 people with alopecia areata have a close relative who is also affected.
If you have alopecia areata you also have a slightly higher than average chance of developing other autoimmune diseases such as thyroid disorders, pernicious anaemia and vitiligo. (However, it is important to stress that most people with alopecia areata do not develop any of these other conditions.)
Do I need any tests?
Usually not. The diagnosis is usually based on the typical appearance of the bald patches. If there is doubt about the cause of the hair loss, sometimes some blood tests or a skin scraping from a bald patch may be done to rule out other causes of baldness. A small skin biopsy (small sample) is sometimes taken to look at under the microscope.
What is the outlook (prognosis) for people with alopecia areata?
- Mild cases of alopecia areata often get better without treatment within a few months to a year.
- In some cases, patchy baldness may come and go over many months or years. The size of the bald patch or patches and how long they last are quite variable.
- If less than half of the scalp is affected and no treatment is started, there is about an 8 in 10 chance of full hair re-growth within one year.
- With more extensive hair loss, it is less likely that hair will re-grow.
However, even if your hair grows back fully after an episode of alopecia areata, it is common to have one or more recurrences of the condition throughout your life. About 1 in 5 people who develop alopecia areata will progress to alopecia totalis (total scalp baldness) and about 1 in 10 will develop alopecia universalis (loss of all scalp and body hair). Progression to these more extensive types of hair loss is more common if:
- The onset occurs in childhood.
- The initial bout of hair loss affects more than half of your scalp.
- You have Down's syndrome.
- You have atopic eczema.
- You have eyelash and/or eyebrow hair loss.
- You have a family history of alopecia areata.
- You have ophiasis (alopecia areata of the scalp margin).
- You have nail changes.
- You have another autoimmune disease.
Treatment can promote hair re-growth in some cases.
What are the treatment options for alopecia areata?
Not treating is a common option
Alopecia areata is a very unpredictable condition. In many cases, bald patches re-grow by themselves without treatment. In particular, if there are just one or two small bald patches then many doctors would advise that you simply leave it alone at first. This is sometimes called watchful waiting.
If the hair loss is not too bad then there is a good chance that your hair will re-grow after several months. (Any re-growth usually does not start within three months of hair loss.) A change in hairstyle may perhaps conceal one or two small bald patches. If the hair loss becomes more extensive, then the decision on whether to treat can be reconsidered. But even with extensive hair loss, there is still a chance that hair will re-grow without treatment.
Note: alopecia areata itself won't damage your general health and so not treating will not lead to any general health problems. When considering any treatment choices, you should take into account the possible side-effects that some of the treatments may have. Also, treatments promote hair to re-grow and do not affect or cure the underlying cause of the condition.
Injections of steroid into the bald patches of the scalp suppress the local immune reaction that occurs in alopecia areata. This can then allow the hair follicles to function normally again for hair to re-grow. This treatment may be an option for one or more small- to medium-sized bald patches. Steroid injections are thought to be the most effective treatment for patches of alopecia areata that are not too big. However, they do not work in every case.
This treatment is usually only done by a skin specialist and referral to hospital will usually be needed. Several injections (about 1 cm apart) are usually given at each session of treatment but the number is often limited by pain. Therefore, large bald areas are not suitable for steroid injections. Initial re-growth takes 1-2 months and injections are repeated every 4-6 weeks.
Note: there is no guarantee that any hair re-grown during treatment will persist once the treatment is finished.
Topical (rub-on) steroid
Steroid cream, gel, etc, may help hair re-growth, but does not work as well as steroid injections. It may be worth a try if you have bald patches that are not suitable for steroid injections, or if you are waiting to see a specialist to have steroid injections. If re-growth occurs, it takes 3-6 months. There is no point continuing with this treatment if you do not develop any re-growth after six months.
This is rubbed into the bald patches and has been shown to promote hair re-growth in some cases. This is the same treatment that is used for the common male pattern baldness. It is not known how it works. The success rate is not high but may be worth a try - in particular, if you have more extensive bald patches that are not suitable for steroid injections, or if you are waiting to see a specialist for steroid injections.
Minoxidil is not available on the NHS. You need a private prescription and have to pay the full cost of the product, which makes it expensive. Also, some people with certain medical conditions may not be able to use it. So, before buying it, check with your doctor or pharmacist that it is suitable for you. If it works, it usually takes 2-3 months of treatment for an initial response, and one year for a maximum response. There is no point continuing with this treatment if there is no improvement after one year.
It is thought that topical immunotherapy is the most effective option for people with extensive alopecia areata. However, this treatment is only done by some skin specialists and so you will need to be referred to one of these specialists for it.
How topical immunotherapy works is not clear. A substance is put on affected skin to make the skin react like an allergy. A commonly used substance is diphencyprone (DPCP). Increasing strengths of this substance are placed on the affected skin once a week over several weeks until the skin looks like it has mild dermatitis (eczema). The skin reaction seems to affect the process involved in causing alopecia areata in some way to allow hair to re-grow. Side-effects can be troublesome. For example, some people develop severe skin reactions. Treating children with topical immunotherapy is controversial.
Once re-growth occurs, treatment can be stopped but, in many cases, the hair loss then recurs. Therefore, regular maintenance treatment is often needed to keep the hair loss from returning.
Wigs are a common treatment choice in patients with alopecia areata. You can get some wigs on the NHS. However, this needs a referral to hospital as only a skin specialist can sanction the prescription of a wig on the NHS.
Various other treatments may be used or advised. These include the following:
- Psoralen combined with ultraviolet A (PUVA) light therapy or phototherapy has been used with some limited success. This treatment requires many light therapy sessions in a hospital outpatient department.
- Dermatography (tattooing) can be used to simulate eyebrows that have fallen out.
- Counselling is sometimes helpful for people who find it difficult to cope with hair loss.
- Remembering to use sunblock or a hat to protect bald patches when out in the sun.
There is not enough evidence to say how effective complementary treatments are in treating alopecia areata (for example, acupuncture, aromatherapy, etc).
A final note about treatments
As you can see from the section above, there are various treatment options. It is difficult to say from the outset whether a particular treatment will benefit a particular person. One of the difficulties is that hair grows back without any treatment in many cases. Therefore, it is difficult to research the effect of treatments, as hair may re-grow naturally.
Generally, the success rate for the various treatments is probably not high. Also, there is no guarantee that any hair re-grown during treatment will persist once the treatment is finished.
Further help & information
Further reading & references
- Guidelines for the management of alopecia areata, British Association of Dermatologists (2012)
- Alopecia areata; NICE CKS, June 2009
- Bolduc C et al, Alopecia Areata, Medscape, Apr 2012
- Zannini L, Verderame F, Cucchiara G, et al; 'My wig has been my journey's companion': perceived effects of an aesthetic care Eur J Cancer Care (Engl). 2012 Feb 20. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2354.2012.01337.x.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Tim Kenny
Dr Laurence Knott
Dr Helen Huins