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The exact causes of alopecia areata, a medical condition in which a person experiences hair loss in round patches, are unknown. Alopecia areata itself is an autoimmune disease, meaning it is a condition in which a person’s immune system attacks its own body. In the case of alopecia areata, the immune system attacks the body’s hair follicles. The reason for this attack is not understood, as alopecia areata can occur in a person who is healthy otherwise. Though the causes of alopecia areata may be unknown, a person with the condition sometimes has a family history of the disease.
Like other autoimmune diseases, causes of alopecia areata are unknown because there is little understanding as to why the immune system attacks itself. Normally, the immune system protects the body from antigens, which are harmful substances, like bacteria or toxins. With an autoimmune disease, though, the immune system is unable to distinguish between antigens and normal body tissues. This leads it to attack what it would not normally go after.
Alopecia areata can occur in anyone of any age, anywhere on the body. Usually, the hair loss is gradual, with small patches of loss occurring on the scalp. The condition might progress and result in a person losing all his hair on the scalp, in which case he has alopecia totalis. If he loses all the hair on his body, he then has alopecia universalis. Though it is possible for a person’s condition to progress this far, it does not happen to everyone.
No cure exists for alopecia areata. Oftentimes, the condition does not need treatment, as the hair will grow back on its own, even years after hair loss. Since the causes of alopecia areata are unknown, if a person does receive treatment, the goal is generally not to get to the bottom of the hair loss, but to get the hair to regrow. The type of treatment a person receives depends on the severity of his condition. Sometimes treatment can involve a combination of methods.
For alopecia areata, treatment includes cortisone injections, topical minoxidil and anthralin ointment. If alopecia areata progresses to alopecia totalis or alopecia universalis, treatment includes cortisone pills or topical immunotherapy with chemicals like diphencyprone. The outcome of any treatment depends on a person’s immune system. Even if hair grows back in treated places, a person might still lose patches of hair in other places, or the hair that grows back can fall back out. For some people who develop alopecia areata, the condition might last for a while and then never return.