Alopecia Areata and Its Treatments

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Alopecia areata is well known as an unpredictable hair disease affecting about 2% of the world’s population and it happens to be the second most common type of hair loss after male and female pattern baldness. It is often called patch baldness or spot baldness due to its patchy, balding pattern. In severe cases, it can affect the whole scalp (alopecia totalis) or the whole body (alopecia universalis). It is not yet known what causes alopecia areata. It is thought to be an autoimmune condition triggered by a person’s autoimmune system, which decides to attack its own hair follicles. Sometimes the hair grows back a few years later and stays and sometimes it falls out again. Although there is no ultimate cure for alopecia areata, some treatments have been proven to improve this condition. The most popular treatment option, which does not require a doctor’s prescription, is topical minoxidil, such as Rogaine. It can be used alone or in combination with other medicinal treatments that will be discussed later.

The most common amongst prescription treatments used for alopecia areata are corticosteroid shots, injected straight into the bald spot, and steroid gels and creams. Corticosteroid injections are said to be a more effective but also the more painful option of the two. The aim of this approach is to suppress the autoimmune reaction but it has been proven to work only on small bald spots. Another common treatment for small bald patches, which is also thought to affect the autoimmune reaction, is the application of topical anthralin. Anthralin is a tar-like substance used to treat psoriasis.

Topical immunotherapy is the most common form of treatment for extensive alopecia areata. It relies on an immunosuppressant such as cyclosporine that is applied to the skin to cause a skin reaction similar to mild eczema, which in some cases leads to hair re-growth. This method is also the most radical form of treatment, causing an array of negative side effects.

Another treatment applied for extensive alopecia areata is PUVA, which stands for "psoralen plus ultraviolet A radiation", consisting of a topical or oral application of psoralen, followed by ultraviolet radiation. This method is better tolerated than topical immunotherapy but it is also less effective.

A recently conducted research study with sulfasalazine also spells some promise for patients with severe cases of alopecia areata. Sulfasalazine is an anti-inflammatory medication first used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and is hoped to be soon used to treat alopecia areata.

This is the list of the most commonly prescribed medicinal treatments for alopecia areata. There obviously is an array of other alternative therapies that are claimed to improve this condition and do not require a doctor’s visit. Consumers should be aware that none of such products has ever been clinically shown to be effective in treating alopecia areata and such claims are possible only because these products are not regulated pharmaceuticals but non-regulated cosmetics.