The word alopecia comes from the Greek 'alopex' which translates as 'fox's disease'. Today, however, alopecia is defined as an autoimmune hair-loss disease that affects men, women and children of any age. The onset of the hair-loss is often sudden, random and frequently recurrent. The different types of alopecia are:
Alopecia Areata (al-oh-pea-shah r-e-ah-ta) (AA) - hair loss occurring in patches, usually small and round, anywhere on the body.
Alopecia Totalis (AT) - total loss of the hair on the scalp.
Alopecia Universalis (AU) - total loss of all hair on the body.
Androgenetic Alopecia - male/female pattern baldness (which is not autoimmune).
While the disease itself is not damaging to bodily health in any other way, apart from possible changes in the appearance of the nails, coping with hair-loss can prove challenging.
What causes it?
The bodyís immune system wrongly attacks the growing cells in the bodyís hair-producing follicles, where the hair starts to grow. This stops them producing new hair and causes existing hair to fall out. The cells which produce the hair, the follicles, do still remain active so the potential for hair to start re-growing is always there. A personís ethnic origin, social status, their sex or age has no apparent bearing on the likelihood of them suffering from alopecia. You can find out more from our research section.
How common is it?
Figures vary, but it is commonly accepted that something approaching 1.7% of the population will have alopecia to some degree during their lifetime. This includes more than 4 million people in the United States, with men and women equally affected. About 25% of people with alopecia have a family history of the disorder (Bertolino, 2000).
Is it hereditary?
Susceptibility can be affected by hereditary (inherited) genes in as much as they are thought to influence the likelihood of getting alopecia. About 25% of patients have a family history of the disorder. However, your genes alone are not going to make alopecia occur. Neither are you going to pass on an `alopecia geneí to your children. It is thought that there is a combination of genes which predispose you to the condition, meaning it is possible you may have the symptoms at some point in your lifetime. You can find out more from our research section.
Why did I get it?
Over 20% of people with alopecia have a family member with it. If you have had eczema, asthma or a thyroid disease you are more prone to alopecia. However, the majority of people with alopecia are not aware of being in either of these categories and susceptibility is then probably due to their combination of genes. Some studies show a link with stress or trauma.
What treatments are available?
There is no cure for alopecia and no universally proven therapy to induce hair re-growth and sustain remission. However, there are treatments - you can visit our treatments page for information on the various options. The effectiveness of treatments tends to vary and something that works well for one person may not for another. So if you find one treatment doesn't work, don't assume others won't either. But do bear in mind that for some people none of the treatments are effective. If this is your case, then you may find our coping tips useful. And, of course, no treatment at all is another option.
What are the alternatives to treatments?
Some people wear bandannas or wigs (some of which can stay on for swimming and in the shower) - visit appearance tips for further suggestions. These can be combined with treatments too of course. Some people with alopecia are happy to do nothing.
Will my hair grow back?
The vast majority of people with alopecia experience some degree of re-growth. The growing cells that supply the hair follicle remain active, so the potential for hair to re-grow is always there. There is a possibility of complete re-growth. But you may also experience the condition worsening or improving at any time. It is unpredictable, which is one of the most difficult aspects of the condition - nobody can tell you with certainty what the pattern of your alopecia will be. So, at the extremes of the condition, you may have a single patch with complete re-growth within a short time and no further occurrence; or you may, as in a small minority of cases, experience all your body hair being lost with no re-growth at any time. It is most common to experience hair loss and re-growth over many years. The re-growth can be any texture and colour, from fine, downy hair that's white, to hair identical to your original hair colour and texture.
Is there anything that can help me cope with the effects of alopecia?
You are not alone. There are millions of people with alopecia in all corners of the world. Reading their stories or comments online, on discussion boards and in chat rooms (see our links page for suggested sites) will show you how other people cope in various ways throughout the world. That is not to say it isnít an upsetting condition or that you wonít have times when you find it difficult. On the positive side it is not contagious, not painful, and there is no reason why, even though you have alopecia, you canít do all the things you did before its onset. People with alopecia continue to go to school or work, fall in love and have healthy, happy families of their own.
If you want to wear a bandanna, a scarf, a hat or a wig, or proudly show your bald head along with Duncan Goodhew (British swimmer) and Pierluigi Collina (Italian football referee), go ahead and do whatever makes you feel better - visit our appearance tips section to find out more. Or there are organisations on our links page that have other suggestions, or you might like professional help and advice. In the UK this service will nearly always be within the NHS Ė other countries will have their own arrangements which you will need to check.
Join a support group - or start your own! Put your feelings up on a discussion board. It helps to say how you really feel to other people in the same situation, who will understand exactly what youíre saying. This can sometimes be the best free therapy available!
Visit our coping tips for more suggestions but, in the meantime, try to keep smiling and release some feel-good endorphins. Laughter will probably have a positive effect on your health.
How can I get more information?
If you can't find what you need after browsing through our site, then visit our Ask an Expert page to ask advice on all things alopecia, or go to our links page to find other organisations and websites that may be able to help. You could also take a look at our book reviews.