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What is Alopecia?

Latin term alopecia means hair loss, of which there are several types, often affecting not only the scalp but also other parts of the body covered with hair. In addition to the aesthetic consequences, hair loss is also psychologically distressing, even if it may not always be apparent. There are many causes, ranging from hereditary factors, increased stress factors and thyroid problems, but the causes of some types are still unknown and are considered to be autoimmune.

Before we look at the types of hair loss and their characteristic symptoms, let's see how hair structure is built up, what the life cycle of a hair is and when hair loss is considered thinning!

The structure of hair

Our hair is 97% made up of a protein called creatine, with the remaining 3% made up of water. The hair shaft does not grow out of the skin, but from a protein called hair follicle, which is produced by the hair root. The life cycle of a hair shaft is made up of several stages: growth stage, transition stage, resting stage. At the end of the process, the hair follicle that has degenerated is brought to the surface and the hair root underneath starts to grow a new follicle, the new hair root pushing the old one out.

An adult human being has between 100,000 and 150,000 hairs, of which about 50-100 are shed every day, which is considered natural. Hair loss occurs when more hairs are lost than are replaced and this is reflected in the mirror over time. In the case of more severe hair loss or patchy hair loss, it is suspected that the natural growth cycle of the hair has been disrupted by a health problem. In this case, it is advisable to consult a specialist as soon as possible to increase the chances of reducing, or at best reversing, the rate of hair loss.

If hair is thinning at a steady rate, it is often only noticed after a longer period of time. However, if hair loss occurs in one patch, it will be noticeable much earlier.

Causes, symptoms and types of patchy hair loss

Az alopecia areata means patchy hair loss. Medical science has not yet found the exact cause of its development. According to what we know at present, it is an autoimmune disease: the body's immune system attacks the hair follicles because it mistakenly perceives them as pests. The disease is isolated and therefore not contagious.

A characteristic symptom is the complete loss of hair in small patches on the scalp, while hair continues to grow elsewhere. This can be thought of as a bare round patch on the scalp within a short time. The extent of the hair loss varies from person to person: some people may only have a few centimetres in diameter, while others may have a surface area as large as the palm of their hand. It may even affect other parts of the body, such as the eyebrows, underarms or pubic hair.

Although it is rare (only 2 out of 100 people will experience this problem in their lifetime), it can occur in anyone, regardless of gender or age. If it occurs in pre-adolescent children, there is an increased risk that it will spread to the scalp and hair loss will become permanent, known as alopecia totalis.

Alopecia diffuse, also known as telogen effluvium, is a scattered loss of hair over the whole scalp. The hairs become thinner and go from their growth phase to the resting phase too soon, which is why they fall out. This can be caused by stress or an organic disease, for example, so once this is resolved, the hair loss will stop. If the problem affects not only the scalp, but also other hair on the body, it is called alopecia universalis.

There are also types of patchy baldness that specifically affect children. One of these very serious conditions is monilethrix alopecia, which can occur as a result of a strong shock or trauma. It is characterised by sudden hair shrinkage, frizzing, small bristles and then falling out. The main cause of this phenomenon is the drying out of the scalp and the shrinking of its structure. Thus the cure may be to preserve the elasticity of the scalp. The other baldness, also mainly affecting children, is alopecia ophiasis, which is the loss of hair follicles at the back of the head and can extend to the base of the ears.

The above types of patchy hair loss can be treated with good results by identifying the causes and eliminating them. However, there is also a type where the baldness that has developed is unfortunately irreversible.

Scaling baldness

One of the most severe types of patchy baldness is scarring alopecia, of which there are two types: cicatricial alopecia and scarring alopecia. In this case, an infection, bacteria, fungus or virus attacks the hair follicles and destroys them, leaving small scars on the scalp. It can also develop as a result of a skin or follicle inflammation or chronic autoimmune disease. The process of hair follicles dying as a result of one of the above causes, resulting in hair loss.

Symptoms can be noticed quickly, as the hair in the wounded, damaged scalp areas becomes completely thinning, bald patches and areas of hair loss develop. The earlier we notice this process, the faster we can stop or at least reduce hair loss. For example, if it is caused by a skin condition, treating it will also stop hair loss. Unfortunately, however, scarring baldness is irreversible, severely damaged hair follicles can no longer be saved, and lost hair can only be regained by hair transplantation.

There is no doubt that the loss of hair will eventually become apparent to the person concerned, and in the short term they will probably hope that the symptoms will 'go away'. However, given the diversity of alopecia, if you are losing an unusual amount of hair, it is important to seek professional advice!