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How to Treat Alopecia Areata

written by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 11/30/2009

Treat alopecia areata with the right therapies, and you may see improvement in the symptoms of this condition. Learn the causes and symptoms of this condition in this comprehensive overview.

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    Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder that causes widespread hair loss on the scalp and other parts of the body. This hair loss causes patches to form on the skin, which can be embarrassing for some people with the condition. Understanding how to treat alopecia areata is an important part of living with the disorder.

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    Autoimmune Disorders

    When the immune system is working properly, it produces antibodies that fight disease-causing organisms such as bacteria and viruses. When an autoimmune disorder is present, the immune system creates antibodies that attack healthy tissues and cause damage. Alopecia areata is caused by antibodies attacking the hair follicles in the body. When the hair follicles are attacked, hair loss occurs and patchy areas appear on the scalp and other areas.

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    Signs & Symptoms

    This condition most often affects the scalp, with coin-sized patches appearing on the skin. These patches can also develop on eyelashes, eyebrows, and beards. Itching and irritation may occur before a new patch develops, but there are usually no other symptoms associated with this autoimmune disorder. Occasionally, the nail beds have tiny dents in them.

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    Complications

    This condition is not serious in terms of medical risks, but it can cause some embarrassment for people who experience hair loss in visible places. Someone with this disorder is also at an increased risk for autoimmune disorders like vitiligo and thyroid disease. Children of those affected with alopecia areata may develop allergies, asthma, eczema, or autoimmune disorders.

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    Prognosis

    The hair that falls out due to this condition usually grows back, but it may fall out again. This makes it difficult to predict when bald patches will appear and when they will go away. Difficulty in predicting periods of patchy baldness make this condition very frustrating. Some people may wear wigs or hair extensions to cover up their bald spots.

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    Treatment

    When doctors decide how to treat alopecia areata in specific cases, the treatment depends on the amount of hair loss. If less than 50 percent of the scalp hair is missing, several drugs can be used to halt hair loss and encourage new hair growth. Cortisone injections are injected into the bald patches once per month. This does not prevent new patches from forming, but it can help encourage the hair to grow back. Minoxidil solution is applied to the hair twice daily to encourage regrowth. This treatment is particularly effective when used on the scalp, beard, and eyebrows. Anthralin cream is applied to the bald patches each day and washed off after a short period. This can encourage new hair growth, but the cream may be irritating or cause discoloration of the skin.

    If more than 50 percent of hair from the scalp has been lost, treatment is more difficult. Oral cortisone may be taken to encourage new hair growth. Some people cannot tolerate this treatment because of the side effects it produces. Another treatment for this condition is known as topical immunotherapy. In this treatment, chemicals are used to produce an allergic rash at the site of the bald patches. The National Alopecia Areata Foundation reports that 40 percent of patients treated with this method experience new hair growth within six months.