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Alopecia: The Hair Loss Experience

Alopecia affects about one in 1,000 people in the United States, rendering them more likely to lose hair at an unusually gradual rate – and research has revealed that your ability to contract the disease increases if you carry the alopecia gene. For anyone wondering to themselves, “Is alopecia hereditary?”, we’re here to discuss the details of the disease, and help you figure out whether or not you should DNA test alopecia to see if you might be susceptible. 

What is the alopecia gene?

Alopecia is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when a person’s immune system attacks their hair follicles, resulting in significant hair loss that mainly affects hair on the head and face. While losing body hair is eventually quite normal for anyone – especially for people over the age of 65 – the alopecia gene can affect anyone from children to older adults, and causes hair to fall out in small, round patches about the size of a dollar coin. There is no current cure for alopecia, and other than the unusual amount and pattern of hair loss, most people with the alopecia hereditary gene are otherwise healthy and well. However, this unpredictable hair loss can absolutely impact a person’s self-esteem, self-image, and overall quality of life. If you DNA test alopecia, keep in mind there are a few different types of alopecia you might be susceptible to if you carry the alopecia hereditary gene:

  • Alopecia areata

Alopecia areata looks like patchy baldness, and can develop anywhere on the body – like the scalp, face, eyebrows, eyelashes, nasal passages, ears, or armpits. This is the most common form of alopecia for a person to contract. 

  • Diffuse alopecia areata

Rather than losing your hair in patches – like with regular alopecia areata – diffuse alopecia areata will cause a person to lose their hair in a sudden, thinning fashion. 

  • Ophiasis alopecia areata

This type of alopecia areata is defined by the hair being lost in a band shape around the back and sides of a person’s head. 

  • Alopecia totalis

This type of alopecia is centric to the scalp. With alopecia totalis, the person will lose all of the hair on their scalp until they are completely bald. 

  • Alopecia universalis

With alopecia universalis, a person will lose all of their body hair, leaving them entirely hairless. This is the rarest form of alopecia for a person to contract. 

Symptoms of alopecia

Depending on the type of alopecia hereditary gene you carry, the symptoms of the hair-loss disease can vary. However, these are the main effects you should pay attention to if you think you might have the alopecia gene.

  • Small, dollar-coin-sized bald patches on your scalp, face, or other parts of the body
  • Bald patches that grow larger over time 
  • Hair that grows back in one spot while falling out in another
  • Significant hair loss within a short period of time
  • Increased hair loss during the winter season
  • Red, brittle, or pitted fingernails and toes

The main causes of alopecia

Alopecia is often hereditary – a direct result of the alopecia gene running in your family. However, there are a few other reasons a person might develop alopecia throughout their lifetime, even if they DNA test alopecia and it comes up negative.

  • Stress

Stress-related hair loss – whether physical, emotional, or some combination of the two – is known as telogen effluvium. After suffering a stress episode, you might notice hair coming out in clumps, either while showering or combing. This can be caused by a severe illness or infection, childbirth, major surgery, restrictive dieting, prescription drugs, or significant emotional stress. 

  • Other autoimmune conditions or diseases

In some cases, alopecia occurs as a side effect to some other autoimmune condition, like lupus, anemia, or thyroid disorders. 

  • Burns or injuries

Some burns, injuries, or X-rays can result in hair loss, and in most cases, the hair will grow back once the injury is healed. However, if the injury was severe enough to bring on a scar, the hair will never return. 

  • Excessive shampooing or blow-drying

If you have long hair, you’re probably already familiar with the fact that, to maintain healthy and shiny hair, you should be shampooing it as little as possible. However, some people remain unaware of this anecdote, and tend to shampoo their hair way more often than recommended (every few days). But many shampoos are loaded up with chemicals, and excessive exposure will result in brittle, breakable hair. A similar fate is true for anyone who blow-dries their hair more often than normal, as the excessive heat can severely irritate the skin and result in abnormal breakage. 

  • Changes in hormones

Men and women are equally susceptible to this risk, as any change or imbalance in hormones leaves someone vulnerable to the possibility of hair loss. But in most cases, treating the imbalanced hormones will result in hair regrowth down the line. 

  • Compulsive hair pulling or scalp rubbing

While some people bite their nails as a nervous habit, others are prone to compulsive hair pulling, scalp rubbing, or other actions that consistently irritate the hair follicles – and this can result in hair loss over time, whether or not they carry the alopecia gene.

  • Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy often results in hair loss – although when a person has completed their treatment course, the hair should begin growing back within 2-4 months. 

  • Harmful hairstyles 

The way you choose to wear your hair can negatively affect how it grows, and this can definitely cause hair loss over time. In general, you should avoid wearing the same hairstyle every day if it causes strain on the scalp, like: tight braids, tight ponytails, wet updos, extensions, constant hair-dyeing, or extremely long dreadlocks. 

Five popular preventative measures to take against alopecia development

If you DNA test alopecia and come back with a positive result, you may want to start thinking about preventative measures you’d like to take down the line to help cope with its development. There is no uniform cure for the disease, but there are a few different options on the market for those who have located the alopecia hereditary gene in their test results. Here are five of the most helpful treatments for alopecia – a helpful list to keep in mind if you DNA test alopecia and discover you might be susceptible.

  • Corticosteroid injections

If you suffer from mild alopecia areata, you might have heard the term “corticosteroid injection” as a possible salve for your symptoms. Corticosteroid injections mimic the hormone cortisol, and are designed to lower inflammation and regulate immune system activity. In turn, this prevents that attack on your body’s hair growth.

  • Oral corticosteroids

Oral corticosteroids are ideal for someone who suffers from more severe alopecia areata (like totalis or universalis). Rather than injecting the synthetic hormones in your body, this version of corticosteroid is administered orally, and works similarly to the injection in regards to inflammation reduction and immune system regulation. 

  • Topical anthralin

Topical anthralin is recommended for those with mild alopecia areata. The cream was originally designed to treat psoriasis, but it’s also been recognized for its success among alopecia patients. If you go this route, you’ll simply apply anthralin cream once a day directly to the areas of the scalp that are struggling. This stimulates the immune system, and ultimately should encourage hair growth in the affected regions.

  • Topical immunotherapy

Topical immunotherapy works best for those with totalis or universalis, and is a bit more in-depth than anthralin cream. With this treatment route, patients will apply chemicals directly to the scalp, which causes an allergic reaction designed to stimulate the immune system and encourage hair growth. Topical immunotherapy can be a helpful option for those seeking solutions, but keep in mind that the process could result in unsavory side effects, like severe rashes, eczema, blistering, and more. 

  • Topical minoxidil

Best for mild alopecia areata, topical minoxidil – or “Rogaine” – is easy to apply and acquire at any local drugstore. The drug helps hair grow faster once the follicle is no longer under immune system attack, and isn’t known for causing many side effects. It’s also quite affordable, but not necessarily effective for extensive hair loss. 

Finding alopecia community

There are quite a few options for treatment, but living with the alopecia gene can be a life-long journey that may take a toll on your mental health and wellness. While you may have a really supportive group of friends and/or family, it’s important to seek out a community that truly understands what you’re going through: a.k.a., other alopecia sufferers who can relate more directly to your needs and daily experiences. Start finding people to connect with as soon as you DNA test alopecia, as even waiting for test results can be a time when you’ll need support. Whether that looks like an online forum, a support group, or the r/alopecia_areata subreddit, there are plenty of ways to connect with other people who are going through a similar situation. This is a great way to share support, make like-minded new friends, and offer tips and advice to one another that might drastically improve someone’s quality of life. Any community is strengthened by drawing from and leaning on one another, and if you’re someone who finds comfort in the support of others, don’t be afraid to seek it out. You don’t have to be alone in your alopecia hereditary experience.

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