What is Alopecia?

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Alopecia is an umbrella term representing a number of different hair loss conditions, which range from patchy thinning to complete baldness and (in extreme cases) hair loss across the face and body.

The term “alopecia” is often used as a shorthand for alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system attacks hair follicles1. It is one of the most common forms of alopecia—though there are various types, each with a range of different characteristics and effects.

Changes to the hair, including thinning or hair falling out, may also signify an underlying medical condition that requires attention. It’s important to talk to a doctor or a trichologist if you notice changes to your hair’s density or condition.

Early Signs Of Alopecia

Any changes in the hair could be an early sign of alopecia. Particular symptoms to look out for are:

Hair breaking more often, indicating that new growth is weak.

You feel like you’re shedding more hair than you used to.

Clumps of hair on your pillow in the morning.

Clumps of hair coming out when you wash your hair.

A bald patch on your scalp.

Changes to your fingernails or toenails—very small indents, little white lines or loss of condition in your nails2.

What Advanced Alopecia Might Look Like

As alopecia progresses, hair loss may become more obvious and more widespread across your scalp (and occasionally across the body):

Multiple bald patches across the scalp.

Loss of beard hair, or bald patches in the beard.

Hair in other areas of the body falling out (e.g. eyelashes, arms, legs).

Pronounced thinning, or complete hair loss, across the scalp3.

Diagnosing Alopecia

Alopecia of any kind is diagnosed by a doctor, trichologist, or dermatologist through a physical examination and by looking into a patient’s medical history (including family medical history).

The diagnostic process may also include some hair analysis and blood tests.

How Does Alopecia Differ From Other Forms Of Hair Loss?

While the human body naturally sheds some hair (around 100 hairs a day) which replenishes, alopecia is considered a medical condition. It is different to the most common type of hair loss, male/female-pattern baldness—a condition termed “androgenetic alopecia.”

In men, androgenic alopecia takes the form of a receding hairline followed by the thinning of the hair on the crown and temples4. Alopecia areata differs in that it causes patches of baldness rather than a single consistent receding line.

These patches are usually about the size of a large coin, appear on the scalp in various frequencies and can affect anyone of any age—whereas pattern baldness is most common among older men.

In some cases of alopecia areata, the hair will regrow naturally over time. Those affected by male- and female-pattern baldness will not be able to regrow their hair naturally.

Alopecia Treatment Options

A number of treatments are available—medical and product-centred—for alopecia. Appropriate treatment will vary depending on the type of alopecia you are experiencing (alongside other factors like genetics or age).

The first step is to seek advice from a doctor or trichologist, who will diagnose the type of alopecia and can discuss the right treatment options with you.

In cases of alopecia areata (and some other types, such as postpartum alopecia) hair may regrow naturally over time. At first, it is likely to appear white and wispy, but after a few months, it will start to thicken and regain its natural colour.


Local corticosteroid injections (or creams/pills) have shown a limited amount of success in treating hair loss, including some types of alopecia. Injections are applied to the scalp and brows every four to six weeks, ceasing when hair regrowth has been achieved.

Taking corticosteroid tablets is also an option, however it’s worth noting that alopecia will return once tablet consumption has stopped. In addition, there are a number of potential side effects to this method including raised blood pressure, diabetes, stomach ulcers, cataracts and weight gain5.

Topical Immunotherapy: Minoxidil, Finasteride

Topical immunotherapy involves applying a chemical to areas of hair loss6.Application is to the scalp, brow, or beard, and has been shown to promote hair growth in both men and women.

Minoxidil and finasteride are two of the most common chemicals, and are for adult use only. Minoxidil has minimal side effects, but is not considered effective for extensive hair loss. Finasteride is only suitable for men, not for female alopecia sufferers.

Dithranol Cream

Also used to treat psoriasis, dithranol cream can stimulate hair regrowth when applied to areas of balding. Nevertheless, evidence for its success is weak and side effects include staining of the skin and hair, particularly in fair-headed people7.

Hair Transplants And Light Treatment

More invasive treatments8 can be considered for hair loss, however, many will be expensive and are not an alopecia “cure.” Side effects and various patient factors must also be considered.

Artificial or natural hair follicles can be transplanted to areas of thinning or loss.

Ultraviolet light can be shone on bald patches in an effort to stimulate growth.

Emotional Support

Although they aren’t physically harmful, changes to your hair can be emotionally troubling; they can trigger low self-esteem and be difficult to come to terms with.

One of the most important steps to help you process what is happening is to talk about it—with a medical professional (especially to rule out or identify any underlying conditions), with friends, with family, or with a community of people going through a similar experience.

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