What exactly is alopecia? The Condition of Hair Loss Affecting Millions

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By now you’ve probably read (or seen video of) Will Smith punches Chris Rock after Rock made a joke directed at Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. The joke in question was about Pinkett Smith’s hair loss, which she has publicly explained is a result of her alopecia diagnosis.

Alopecia is another name for hair loss. Despite being extremely common, hair loss can affect mood and well-being because of the way hair is so closely tied to personality and identity. There are different types of alopecia, which have different causes and can present themselves differently. It can also occur anywhere on the body, but is most talked about when it occurs on the scalp.

In addition to Pinkett Smith, other public figures have opened up about having alopecia and advocated for greater awareness and acceptance, including Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley and actress Viola Davis. Alopecia affects millions of people, meaning you’ve probably met someone with it, even if you don’t realize it. Here’s what you need to know about the common condition of hair loss.

What is alopecia? What causes it?

There are a few different types of alopecia. Genetics predispose a person to developing certain types of hair loss, but environmental factors can also play a role.

Alopecia areata

This type of hair loss is caused by an autoimmune disease in which the hair follicle attacks itself, leading to hair loss that can be permanent or temporary. It’s usually unpredictable, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, and many people with this condition develop it when they’re younger or in their teens, but it can affect older adults as well.

According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, it affects more than 6.8 million Americans, or just over 2% of people, at any given time.

Although it is an autoimmune disease, people with alopecia areata are generally healthy, according to the AAD. Like other types of hair loss, there is a genetic component to alopecia areata, but environmental factors also play a role, according to the NAAF.

Androgenetic alopecia

Androgenetic alopecia, also called male or female pattern hair loss, is one of the most common forms of hair loss. Baldness is often associated with men, especially as they age, but this is also a common type of hair loss in women. According to the National Library of Medicine, it affects more than 50% of men by age 50, and is also common in women after they reach menopause, although it presents a little differently. In men, androgenetic alopecia usually causes the hairline to recede gradually, starting from the front of the hairline. In women, the hair gradually thins all over the scalp.

Androgenetic alopecia can be genetic, as the name suggests, and if you have a relative with this type of hair loss, you are more likely to get it too. It is also caused by certain hormones (also in the name: androgens) that are higher in men and postmenopausal women.

People with this type of hair loss may be at higher risk for: polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), coronary artery disease and prostate enlargement, according to the National Library of Medicine.

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Central Centrifugal Cicatricial Alopecia

This is a pattern of hair loss in the center (crown) or your scalp. In people with this condition, the hair follicles can be destroyed, causing scar tissue and leading to permanent hair loss, according to the AAD. Because it can be permanent, it’s important to seek treatment. For CCCA, that means prescription medication.

This type of hair loss is most common in black women but can affect men and people of all races.

Hair loss due to stress or illness

Anagen effluvium is a form of hair loss that is caused by medical treatment such as chemotherapy. Telogen effluvium is hair loss caused by stress, illness or even a hormonal shift like pregnancy. But both conditions involve interference with the hair’s growth cycle, which can return to normal once the stressful event or treatment resolves.

Traction alopecia is another type of hair loss that results from prolonged tension on the scalp, such as wearing tight ponytails or braids. It can also cause itching, redness, or other symptoms. This type of hair loss may be reversible, but your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or other medications to treat the scalp.

Is there a cure for alopecia?

There are many treatments available for hair loss, although it depends on the type.

Alopecia areata can respond to steroid treatment, which interferes with the cells of the immune system, according to Yale Health. However, these treatments may not work for everyone and may depend on the severity of the disease. Topical treatments are also available and some mild cases may resolve on their own.

Androgenetic alopecia can be treated with the drug Minoxidil (Rogaine), which is effective for both men and women, according to Harvard Health. In some studies of hair growth with this type of alopecia, rosemary essential oil was just as effective as Rogaine, according to Healthline.

Under the line? Talk to your doctor or health care professional if you experience hair loss that seems unusual. Even if you decide to make your new look sound natural, it’s important to be examined, as some types of hair loss can cause illness or irritation that require treatment.

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The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare professional if you have any questions about a medical condition or health goals.

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