What is alopecia? | URMC Newsroom

What is alopecia?  |  URMC Newsroom

You may not have heard of alopecia, but it is likely that we all know someone who suffers from this common condition. Mary Gail Mercurio, MD, professor of dermatology, specializes in hair loss and regularly treats patients with the condition. She answers frequently asked questions about alopecia and alopecia areataan autoimmune disease that actress Jada Pinkett Smith has been advocating since revealing her own diagnosis in 2018.

What is alopecia?

Alopecia is a very broad umbrella term for: all causes of hair loss. It is non-specific and covers the entire range of causes of hair loss ranging from the hair loss that occurs after pregnancy, to male pattern baldness, to overprocessing hair breakage, to chemotherapy induced hair loss and more. Some types are temporary and reversible and others are permanent. Unproven media reports suggest that Jada has named Pinkett-Smith a certain variety alopecia areata. This type falls into the autoimmune category and usually starts with small patches of hair loss, but can expand to involve the entire scalp and even hair elsewhere on the body. It affects men, women and children and often runs in families.

How is alopecia diagnosed?

The different types of alopecia can be properly diagnosed by close visual inspection of the scalp, usually by a dermatologist. In rare cases, a biopsy or other additional investigation is required.

What causes alopecia?

There are many types of alopecia, and the causes and treatments vary considerably. Some forms of alopecia are self-limiting and self-correct without any intervention. This is the case with hair loss due to chemotherapy and the hair loss that occurs after pregnancy. Other types, such as male or female hair loss, can be more chronic and progressive and require lifelong treatment to maintain the hair.

As I say to my patients several times a day, “the only thing predictable about alopecia areata is that it is unpredictable.” The hair can regrow spontaneously just as mysteriously as it fell out, or it can be more stubborn and require treatment with potential for waxing and diminishing spikes followed by regrowth.

How common is alopecia?

Alopecia is a common condition seen by dermatologists on a daily basis.

What are the best treatments for alopecia? Does hair grow back from alopecia?

There is no single treatment for all types of alopecia, so it is important to get an accurate diagnosis from the start in order to start the right treatment. Alopecia areata falls into the category of reversible hair loss, while other types of hair loss cause scar tissue that can result in permanent hair loss that requires early intervention to save the remaining hair.

Dermatologists offer many hair loss treatments, including pills, creams, injections, laser and light therapies, and even hair transplants. The industry has responded vigorously to consumer demand for hair loss remedies with a host of expensive over-the-counter products, many of which are not backed by rigorous scientific evidence of efficacy. We are conducting studies in our clinical research unit on a new class of drugs for alopecia areata that fights the overactive immune cells that attack the hair.

What stigmas do people with alopecia face?

Alopecia has a huge impact on quality of life and emotional well-being because it is so visible. While both women and men are negatively affected by the various forms of hair loss, women in particular equate their hair with youthfulness and femininity, and its loss can have a devastating psychological impact.

What is alopecia? | URMC Newsroom

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