Alopecia explained – why hair loss can be isolating and what to do about it

For many of us, our hair is an important part of how we express ourselves, and can also be tied to our self confidence. So what happens when someone’s hair starts to fall out due to alopecia?

To better understand this challenging condition, Yahoo Lifestyle spoke with consultant dermatologist, Dr Leila Asfour (currently on fellowship with Dr Sinclair at Sinclair Dermatology).

Dr Leila Asfour explains that alopecia (hair loss) affects people differently, and is hopeful about greater treatment options in the future. Source: Supplied


What is alopecia and what causes it?

Alopecia is the medical term for hair loss.

“There are many different causes of hair loss and the symptoms depend on the underlying cause,” says Leila.

“In certain cases, the diagnosis can be tricky. A dermatologist (doctor that specializes in skin, hair and nails), can help with diagnosing alopecia.”

Two most common types of hair loss

“The most common two types of hair loss seen in our clinics are alopecia areata and pattern hair loss.

“Alopecia Areata is an autoimmune condition meaning the immune system attacks the hair. In alopecia areata, patients see round shaped patches of hair loss on the scalp and sometimes it can affect their eyebrows, eyelashes or body hair.

Warm-toned waist up portrait of bald woman with alopecia

An autoimmune condition, alopecia areata affects hair growth across the body, including potentially the head, eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair. Source: Getty Images

“In pattern hair loss, patients see increased hair shedding and hair thinning on the crown of the scalp or recession of their hairline. This is predominantly a genetic condition that can run in families.”


Alopecia areata affects 2 per cent of the population

According to Sinclair Dermatology, alopecia areata can affect 2 per cent of the population at some point in their lifetime, often starting in childhood.

Pattern hair loss can also occur during puberty, however it generally affects people as they get older.

Why can alopecia be isolating for people who live with it?

Leila explains that: “throughout history, hair has had a significant role in our society and over the recent years social media has further enhanced the importance we place on image and self-perception.

“Therefore, understandably, and like with other skin conditions, hair loss can have a tremendous impact on someone’s self-esteem and confidence.

“The level of distress it can cause to those affected and their loved ones hasn’t always been fully appreciated. Those experiencing hair loss are often told ‘it’s just hair!’ but the reality is it’s a lot more complex.

“Hair loss can sometimes be poorly understood, even by healthcare professionals, which can lead to incorrect diagnosis or misinformation; this can further contribute to the confusion and frustration.”

According to Australia Alopecia Areata Foundation, people who have alopecia and their family members can experience a range of emotions including:

  • Feeling alone, withdrawn and isolated

  • Loss and grief

  • Fear of other people finding out they have alopecia

  • angry

  • Guilt related to how the disease is affecting a loved one.

Global study shows psychological impact of hair loss

“A global study looking at all skin diseases in the world found that alopecia areata has actually been found to have greater psychological impact compared to people diagnosed with other conditions such as psoriasis or even melanoma,” says Leila.

So, can hair loss be effectively treated?

“Yes,” says Leila, “depending on the type of hair loss.”

Leila further explains that there are a variety of treatments available, which are of course dependent on the particular diagnosis and the individual needs of the patient.

“There are treatments available to either help with symptoms, such as improving hair growth, or helping to conceal and camouflage hair loss (for example, using wigs, hair pieces or hair cosmetics).

“The aim here is to rebuild the person’s confidence again.”

Australia leading the way with targeted treatments for alopecia areata

With hair loss treatments constantly advancing, Leila explains that this is an area of ​​dermatology with promising momentum right now.

“In particular, the future for alopecia areata is bright, with more targeted treatments called JAK inhibitors on the horizon. We currently have two available which we have been using in Australia, but none are currently approved by PBS.

“We envisage in the near future this may change as we have already seen with psoriasis and eczema.

“Australia is actually leading the way in understanding these novel treatments. Further research is also taking place to better understand why and how certain types of hair loss occur.”

How to find support for alopecia

Leila advises that the first step is to confirm the type of hair loss you’re experiencing, as this will help to shape the treatments you receive.

Additionally, emotional and practical support can be accessed through groups such as Australia Alopecia Areata Foundation.

“The foundation can be a great source of support, and also provides useful information on treatments, wigs and alopecia-related events. Sometimes psychological therapies can also help rebuild the confidence and resilience in those affected.”

Some people also find comfort from connecting with others and following inspiring people who have alopecia and are living their best lives.

Other support options include:

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 46 36

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800

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