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How is Alopecia Areata Treated?

While there is neither a cure for alopecia universalis nor drugs approved for its treatment, some people find that medications approved for other purposes can help hair grow back, at least temporarily. The following are some treatments for alopecia universalis. Keep in mind that while these treatments may promote hair growth, none of them prevent new patches or actually cure the underlying disease. Consult your health care professional about the best option for you.

  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs similar to a hormone called cortisol produced in the body. Because these drugs suppress the immune system if given orally, they are often used in the treatment of various autoimmune diseases, including alopecia universalis. Corticosteroids may be administered in three ways for alopecia universalis:
    • Local injections: Injections of steroids directly into hairless patches on the scalp and sometimes the brow and beard areas are effective in increasing hair growth in most people. It usually takes about 4 weeks for new hair growth to become visible. Injections deliver small amounts of cortisone to affected areas, avoiding the more serious side effects encountered with long-term oral use. The main side effects of injections are transient pain, mild swelling, and sometimes changes in pigmentation, as well as small indentations in the skin that go away when injections are stopped. Because injections can be painful, they may not be the preferred treatment for children. After 1 or 2 months, new hair growth usually becomes visible, and the injections usually have to be repeated monthly. The cortisone removes the confused immune cells and allows the hair to grow. Large areas cannot be treated, however, because the discomfort and the amount of medicine become too great and can result in side effects similar to those of the oral regimen.
    • Oral corticosteroids: Corticosteroids taken by mouth are a mainstay of treatment for many autoimmune diseases and may be used in more extensive alopecia areata. But because of the risk of side effects of oral corticosteroids, such as hypertension and cataracts, they are used only occasionally for alopecia areata and for shorter periods of time.
    • Topical ointments: Ointments or creams containing steroids rubbed directly onto the affected area are less traumatic than injections and, therefore, are sometimes preferred for children. However, corticosteroid ointments and creams alone are less effective than injections; they work best when combined with other topical treatments, such as minoxidil or anthralin.
  • Minoxidil (5%): Rogaine: Topical minoxidil solution promotes hair growth in several conditions in which the hair follicle is small and not growing to its full potential. Minoxidil is FDA-approved for treating male and female pattern hair loss. It may also be useful in promoting hair growth in alopecia areata. The solution, applied twice daily, has been shown to promote hair growth in both adults and children, and may be used on the scalp, brow, and beard areas. With regular and proper use of the solution, new hair growth appears in about 12 weeks.
  • Anthralin: Psoriatec: Anthralin, a synthetic tar-like substance that alters immune function in the affected skin, is an approved treatment for psoriasis. Anthralin is also commonly used to treat alopecia areata. Anthralin is applied for 20 to 60 minutes (“short contact therapy”) to avoid skin irritation, which is not needed for the drug to work. When it works, new hair growth is usually evident in 8 to 12 weeks. Anthralin is often used in combination with other treatments, such as corticosteroid injections or minoxidil, for improved results.
  • Sulfasalazine: A sulfa drug, sulfasalazine has been used as a treatment for different autoimmune disorders, including psoriasis. It acts on the immune system and has been used to some effect in patients with severe alopecia areata.
  • Topical sensitizers: Topical sensitizers are medications that, when applied to the scalp, provoke an allergic reaction that leads to itching, scaling, and eventually hair growth. If the medication works, new hair growth is usually established in 3 to 12 months. Two topical sensitizers are used in alopecia areata: squaric acid dibutyl ester (SADBE) and diphenylcyclopropenone (DPCP). Their safety and consistency of formula are currently under review.
  • Oral cyclosporine: Originally developed to keep people’s immune systems from rejecting transplanted organs, oral cyclosporine is sometimes used to suppress the immune system response in psoriasis and other immune-mediated skin conditions. But suppressing the immune system can also cause problems, including an increased risk of serious infection and possibly skin cancer. Although oral cyclosporine may regrow hair in alopecia areata, it does not turn the disease off. Most doctors feel the dangers of the drug outweigh its benefits for alopecia areata.
  • Photochemotherapy: In photochemotherapy, a treatment used most commonly for psoriasis, a person is given a light-sensitive drug called a psoralen either orally or topically and then exposed to an ultraviolet light source. This combined treatment is called PUVA. In clinical trials, approximately 55 percent of people achieve cosmetically acceptable hair growth using photochemotherapy. However, the relapse rate is high, and patients must go to a treatment center where the equipment is available at least two to three times per week. Furthermore, the treatment carries the risk of developing skin cancer.
  • Alternative therapies: When drug treatments fail to bring sufficient hair regrowth, some people turn to alternative therapies. Alternatives purported to help alopecia areata include acupuncture, aroma therapy, evening primrose oil, zinc and vitamin supplements, and Chinese herbs. Because many alternative therapies are not backed by clinical trials, they may or may not be effective for regrowing hair. In fact, some may actually make hair loss worse. Furthermore, just because these therapies are natural does not mean that they are safe. As with any therapy, it is best to discuss these treatments with your doctor before you try them.

Finding a Good Dermatologist (or Doctor in General)

doctorFinding a good dermatologist or doctor can prove to be one of the most difficult things to face when you are experiencing hair loss…

  • A good physician will say, “I’m sorry. This must be hard for you to understand.”
  • He/she will give you the address of the National Alopecia Foundation or other support organizations and tell you about the information they provide.
  • He/she will tell you there are others with this same condition and the medical field just doesn’t understand what’s going on.
  • He/she will understand that you have NEVER heard of this condition and that you are scared.
  • A good physician won’t scoff at your questions or minimize your concerns. He/her will appreciate your questions and will be willing to learn with you as much as possible about the condition.

SIGNS OF A BAD DERMATOLOGIST!!!

  • Inappropriate Commentaries
  • Disbelief
  • Cruelty
  • Callousness
  • Impatience

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The craft of the physician may be judged by the thoroughness of the history and physical examination. The following list provides a schematic of some of the things that a physician should do, or consider doing, when first examining a patient with alopecia. Subsequent visits may be shorter but the physician should always be vigilant to the appearance of other autoimmune conditions, of which, thyroid disease appears to be the most common.

History
The initial part of the history is aimed at providing a background to the patient’s condition and allowing the physician to focus on particular problems. Some of the initial questions include:

  1. Is the hair coming out by the roots or is it breaking off?
  2. Is the loss slowing down or getting worse?
  3. Is your hair becoming thinner or do you have totally bald spots?
  4. Do you color, bleach or straighten your hair?
  5. Do you shampoo or condition the hair?
  6. Do you blow dry your hair or use a hot comb?
  7. Is your father’s, mother’s, sister’s or brother’s hair thinning?

The physician then documents all alopecia episodes including age of onset, duration, remissions, patterns of hair loss, relieving or exacerbating factors, treatments, and associated systemic diseases (autoimmune diseases, allergic rhinitis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, connective tissue disease, bowel disorders involving malabsorption, endocrine abnormalities, chromosomal disorders, or cancer). Some of the questions include:

  1. Do you have anorexia nervosa?
  2. Do you have a thyroid disorder?
  3. Have you gained or lost weight?
  4. Are you anemic?
  5. Are your mentrual periods heavy?

The history should date any medication and events within the past 6 months before the first and subsequent episodes of alopecia. The drugs include aminosalicylic acid, amphetamines, bromocriptine, capatopril, carbamazepine, cimetidine, coumadin, danazol, enalapril, etretinate, levodopa, lithium, metoprolol, propanolol, phenytoin, pyridostigmine, and trimethadione. Other pertinent questions include:

  1. Do you take vitamins?
  2. Do you take separate vitamin A tablets?

An inventory of stressful life events and psychiatric disorders. Specific questions will include:

  1. Did you have a baby?
  2. Have you started or stopped oral contraceptives?
  3. Have you gone through menopause?
  4. Have you had a high fever, the flu, been hospitalized or had major surgery?
  5. Have you been on a crash diet? Are you a vegetarian?
  6. Have you had any major stresses during this time?

Physical Exam of the entire cutaneous surface, oral cavity, nails, and sweating. Some of the special exam maneuvers are individualized and not done in every patient but include:

  1. Scalp examination to determine the patterns of hair loss and associated lesions. The presence or absence of hair follicles and sebaceous glands.
  2. Hair Pull Test where 50-100 hairs are pulled in several sections of the scalp. Normally 2-5 telogen hairs will be obtained in this manner, depending on when the last shampoo and styling were done. An active telogen effluvium condition will produce 3-4 times the normal amount of hair pulled; androgenetic alopecia or resolving telogen effluvium has a slight to moderate increase in the number of hairs shed.
  3. Quantitative Analysis of Hair Shedding – The patient is asked to collect ALL hairs shed daily for 7 days in individual plastic bags. The hair is then counted and averaged per day. Normal daily loss is 50-100 hairs. Patients with active telogen effluvium have a 10-40% greater loss.
  4. Density determination – By shaving a small area of the scalp, marking with a skin punch and ink pad, the hairs are counted per square centimeter (normally 150 hairs/cm). The growth rate is measured one month later (normally 1.0-1.2 cm/mo).
  5. Microscopic Hair analysis looking for telogen bulbs, broken hairs (exclamation point hairs), anagen hairs, hair diameter (a high variability in diameter of the hair shaft is evident in androgenetic alopecia), anagen-telogen ration, and sometimes potassium hydroxide is applied to an individual hair strand sample allowing visualization of fungal spores (blackdot ringworm) which causes broken hairs.
  6. Scalp Biopsy which will show them the following:
    • A normal 4-6 mm skin sample should contain 30 terminal hairs, sweat glands, and hair follicles. When alopecia appears to be scarring, the absence of these establishes the diagnosis.
    • The biopsy must go deep enough to include subcutaneous tissue in order to capture anagen hair bulbs. It is closed with suture to ensure proper healing.
    • Various stains are used to detect scarring, lupus, lichen planus, or a blistering disease.
    • Evidence of inflammation may be an indication for the use of steroids.
    • Amino acid and sulfur analysis may be done for certain rare genetic hair disorders.

How is Androgenetic Areata (AGA) treated?

Only 2 proven, food and drug administration (FDA) approved medications are currently available for treatment of androgenetic alopecia: minoxidil and finasteride.

  • Minoxidil (5%): Rogaine: Topical minoxidil solution promotes hair growth in several conditions in which the hair follicle is small and not growing to its full potential. Minoxidil is FDA-approved for treating male and female pattern hair loss. It may also be useful in promoting hair growth in alopecia areata. The solution, applied twice daily, has been shown to promote hair growth in both adults and children, and may be used on the scalp, brow, and beard areas. With regular and proper use of the solution, new hair growth appears in about 12 weeks.

    Although the method of action is essentially unknown, minoxidil appears to lengthen the duration of the anagen phase, and it may increase the blood supply to the follicle. Regrowth is more pronounced at the vertex than in the frontal areas and is not noted for at least 4 months. Continuing topical treatment with the drug is necessary indefinitely because discontinuation of treatment produces a rapid reversion to the pretreatment balding pattern.

    Patients who respond best to this drug are those who have a recent onset of androgenetic alopecia and small areas of hair loss. The drug is marketed as a 2% or a 5% solution, with the 5% solution being somewhat more effective. A recent 48-week study compared the 2 strengths in men. Findings indicated that 45% more regrowth occurred with the 5% compared with the 2% solution. In general, women respond better to topical minoxidil than men. The increase in effectiveness of the 5% solution was not evident for women in the FDA-controlled studies. Subsequent studies have shown at best a modest advantage to the higher concentration in women. In addition, the occurrence of facial hair growth appears to be increased with the use of the higher-concentration formulation.

  • Finasteride: Propecia: Finasteride is given orally and is a 5 alpha-reductase type 2 inhibitor. It is not an antiandrogen. The drug can be used only in men because it can produce ambiguous genitalia in a developing male fetus. Finasteride has been shown to diminish the progression of androgenetic alopecia in males who are treated, and, in many patients, it has stimulated new regrowth.

    Although it affects vertex balding more than frontal hair loss, the medication has been shown to increase regrowth in the frontal area as well. Finasteride must be continued indefinitely because discontinuation results in gradual progression of the disorder. A study in postmenopausal women indicated no beneficial effect of the medication in treating female androgenetic alopecia.

  • Exogenous Estrogen: In the past, exogenous estrogen was used to treat androgenetic alopecia. This treatment is used less often now, because minoxidil is more effective. In fertile women with androgenetic alopecia who request oral contraception, it is important to select a pill containing the least androgenic progestin, such as norgestimate (in Ortho-Cyclen, Ortho Tri-Cyclen), norethindrone (in Ovcon 35), desogestrel (in Mircette), or ethynodiol diacetate (in Demulen, Zovia).
  • Hair Transplantation: Hair transplants involve removing healthy hair follicles from one area of the scalp and transplanting them to the bald areas. Surgical treatment of androgenetic alopecia has been successfully performed for the past 4 decades. Although the cosmetic results are often satisfactory, the main problem is covering the bald area with donor plugs (or follicles) sufficient in number to be effective. Micrografting produces a more natural appearance than the old technique of transplanting plugs. Patients with less than 40 follicular units/cm2 in their donor areas are poor candidates for the procedure. Scalp reduction has been attempted to decrease the size of the scalp to be covered by transplanted hair. However, the scars produced by the reduction technique often spread and become more noticeable with time.

    Hair weaving techniques are available, and, together with hairpieces, they offer the patient a prosthetic method of coverage.

  • Spironolactone: Aldactone: This drug is a weak competitive inhibitor of androgen binding to androgen receptors. It also decreases the synthesis of testosterone. For these reasons, orally administered spironolactone has been tried in the treatment of androgenetic alopecia, although questions remain about its usefulness. Spironolactone can be beneficial in women who also have hirsuitism. However, the FDA has not labeled this drug for the treatment of androgenetic alopecia.