According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s natural to shed 50 to100 hairs from your scalp every day. However, certain conditions may temporarily increase shedding or cause you to lose large patches of hair at once. Increases in hair loss can be very alarming and are a common reason why people seek specialty care from a dermatologist.

Alopecia areata, a condition that may leave bald patches on the scalp, can be embarrassing and affect self-esteem. Fortunately, multiple treatment options are available.

What Is Alopecia Areata?

Alopecia areata is a type of hair loss that occurs when the immune system targets hair follicles. The areas most often affected — usually the scalp, beard, eyebrows, eyelashes, and others — may have almost complete loss of hair in small oval patches. Sometimes alopecia areata causes a total loss of hair on the scalp (alopecia totalis) or the entire body (alopecia universalis). Without treatment, lost hair may grow back on its own, but timing can vary. In some cases, treatment is needed to decrease the immune system’s reaction and help hair grow back faster.

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Causes of Alopecia Areata

It is not clear what triggers the immune system to attack healthy hair follicles in alopecia areata. However, genetic traits — such as a family history of allergies, asthma, or autoimmune disease — may increase your risk of developing it.

Symptoms of Alopecia Areata

The symptoms of alopecia areata are easily recognizable. The American Academy of Dermatology specifies the following signs:

  • Thin or shedding hair, including large clumps of hair loss
  • Changes in toenails or fingernails (nails may have tiny dents or appear thin and split)
  • Hair shafts that appear narrower toward the scalp
  • Hair loss in other areas of the body, like eyelashes, beard, or eyebrows
  • Hair loss that occurs rapidly

Alopecia areata can occur at any age

Related: Should I Take Medicine to Regrow Hair?

Psychological Impact of Alopecia Areata

Alopecia areata is usually not associated with physical pain, but it may cause tremendous emotional distress. Hair loss understandably increases self-consciousness and a loss of confidence which can lead to anxiety or depression.

If you experience any of these symptoms while struggling with alopecia areata, your doctor can design a treatment plan and discuss resources and coping strategies to help you manage during this stressful time.

Treatment Options for Alopecia Areata

A visit to your doctor or dermatologist should be the first step to determine the reason for your hair loss. Your doctor may perform a hair analysis or order blood work to rule out any medical causes of alopecia and make sure your body has the nutrients necessary to regrow hair.

If your doctor determines that you have alopecia areata, you have several treatment options. Your first choice always is to defer treatment and allow the hair to grow back on its own; lost hair usually regrows within a year. During that time, many people choose to wear wigs, hairpieces, or weaves.

The Department of Dermatology at UPMC specializes in medical treatments that include topical steroid ointments or steroid injections. Systemic immune modulating therapies — commonly involving oral medicines — may be used to calm down the inflammation and allow hair to regrow. Contact immunotherapy, in which topical allergens are applied to the affected skin or body part, may be appropriate for individuals who do not respond or are not good candidates for other treatments.

There are multiple treatment options available to tackle alopecia areata. To speak with a caring, helpful hair growth expert, contact the Department of Dermatology at UPMC, or call 1-800-533-UPMC (8762) to find a dermatologist in your area.

About Dermatology

The UPMC Department of Dermatology diagnoses, treats, and manages numerous hair, skin, and nail conditions and diseases. We care for common and uncommon conditions, and our treatments include both surgical and nonsurgical options. We operate several specialty centers for various conditions. The UPMC Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center is a comprehensive dermatologic laser facility, offering a full range of cosmetic services and procedures. With UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, we offer a Skin Cancer Program that provides complete care from screenings, diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. Find a dermatology provider near you.