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‘Alopecia’ is just a general term for hair loss - from mild and temporary shedding to profuse and permanent loss. It’s the preceding word that explains the type of hair loss - in this case ‘areata’, which means ‘in areas’. Alopecia areata is widely accepted to be an auto immune disorder, where the body sees certain hair cells as foreign enemies and attacks them.
Alopecia areata causes specific areas of baldness that appear randomly throughout the scalp. This hair loss can be temporary, semi-permanent (recurring) or permanent and can also affect facial (beard) hair in men, and eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair in both sexes.
It can affect the entire scalp called as Alopecia Totalis.
It leads rarely to a universal loss of hair (loss of entire body hair) or ‘Alopecia Universalis’.
Alopecia areata affects approximately 4% of the population and around 98% of those diagnosed recover. Alopecia areata can affect all ethnic groups and ages, but is most likely to occur between the ages of 20 and 50. It also occurs equally in both men and women.
The main diagnostic feature of alopecia areata is the presence of bald patches surrounded by little ‘exclamation mark hairs’.
They are thicker at the top and taper to a thinner end, with the root a blob at the bottom. The number of exclamation mark hairs indicates how active the alopecia areata is. In general, the more they are, the more rapid its progress. However, sometimes there are no visible exclamation mark hairs at all. In these cases, alopecia areata may be diffuse (spread over a large area), but this is rare.
In alopecia there is also inflammation present at the lower end of the hair follicle, but not visible. Rarely, small patches of alopecia areata can grow, overlap and progress to total baldness, or alopecia totalis.
Alopecia areata is also more common in those who suffer from hayfever, eczema, Addison’s disease, pernicious anaemia, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, lichen planus, diabetes mellitus, vitiligo, lupus and thyroid disease.