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What is alopecia? The causes and treatment for the hair loss condition

Worried about your own hair loss? Here's what you should know

Chloe Best
Chloe BestLifestyle Features Editor
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Hair loss is common and effects around 25% of women and as much as 75% of men in the UK at least once during their lifetime but permanent hair loss, Alopecia, is rarer. Affecting around 2 in 1000 people, it can effect any age, gender or race and there are several factors which can cause it. These may include an illness, weight loss or an iron deficiency along with stress or a hormonal imbalance. But what exactly is it? And how can it be treated? We've rounded up everything you need to know.


What is alopecia?

While the average person loses between 50-100 hairs a day, alopecia is considered excessive or abnormal hair loss. There are a number of different types of alopecia which are caused by different factors, including hormonal imbalance or an autoimmune condition.

The causes of different types of alopecia:

1. Alopecia Areata is understood to be an autoimmune condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks the hair follicles, leading to hair loss. This can cause small, smooth bald patches on the scalp and either remain as patchy hair loss or continue until all hair on the scalp or body is lost. This type of Alopecia is most common in women under the age of 30 but it can also occur at any age. 

READ MORE: 5 ways you're accidentally ruining your hair

2. Androgenetic Alopecia is often referred to as 'male pattern hair loss' or 'female pattern hair loss'. It is the most common type of hair loss and is caused by a number of genetic and hormonal factors. This type of Alopecia usually affects women before or after the menopause, so on average around about 50 years old. 

3. Scarring Alopecia, sometimes known as Cicatricial Alopecia, is usually caused by complications of another condition. It occurs when hair follicles destruct and are replaced with scar tissue leaving bald patches and scarring. Typically small patches will form and then expand with time. 

4. Anagen Effluvium, which is widespread hair loss that is often caused by treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. This type of hair loss is temporary and hair should grow back a few months after chemotherapy has stopped.

Can stress cause alopecia?

Stress can cause hair loss, and there's no specific cure but to literally try and de-stress. Exercise, sleep, hydration and a healthy diet should help. 

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Does washing my hair cause alopecia?

No, you can continue to wash your hair as normal even if your hair is falling out as this won't affect it. 

Do heat tools caues hair loss?

You can damage your hair with heat tools but there's no direct link between the use of them and hair loss. 

Is alopecia hereditary? 

It does play a role. According to the National Foundation of Alopecia Areata, it's "a 'polygenic disease' which requires the contribution of many genes to be inherited from both parents to bring about the disease, as well as a contribution from the environment.  However, most children with alopecia areata do not have a parent with the disease, and the vast majority of parents with alopecia areata do not pass it along to their children". 

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What is the treatment for alopecia?

This type of alopecia is typically treated with steroid injections, although steroid creams, gels or ointments may also be prescribed. Typically the results of these, if they are effective, will take a minimum of three months to show. 

Your GP may also prescribe Finasteride, a tablet that works by preventing the hormone testosterone being converted to DHT, which causes the hair follicles to shrink. Studies suggest this can increase the number of hairs people have and also improve the appearance.

Minoxidil, a product that you rub over your scalp twice a day, is an option and you can buy it over the counter if you’re over 18. However, it's definitely advisable to talk about this treatment to your GP before trying it as stopping it can actually make your hair loss worse. If you do decide to give it a go, it will take a minimum of 6 months to show results but there's no guarantee it will be successful. 

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It's important to note that the above is general advice and it is imperative that you consult your GP before undertaking any treatments. In addition to this, if you have a more severe case or you are unsure what type of alopecia you have, you can talk to them about other lesser-known medication options. 

Where can I get more advice on alopecia?

You can find out more in-depth information about Alopecia, find a support group and get general advice at Alopecia UK.

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