Alopecia – doesn’t that word have a lovely sound? Doesn’t it conjure up mental images of white curtains blowing in the wind, of sheers being lifted gently by a light breeze? Well, the only thing being blown away by alopecia is hair. The definition of alopecia is hair loss, and alopecia areata is a mild case of hair loss, usually marked by bald patches on the scalp.
This is the kind of alopecia I’ve got. In early September of this Year of the Pandemic and Other Major Stressors, I discovered a large (larger than a silver dollar) bald patch behind my left ear. I immediately contacted my hairdresser and asked if she had noticed it when I had gotten a haircut just a week earlier. She said she had not, so I estimated that in one week, hair had fallen out of a big circular area of my scalp. Within two weeks, I found a patch behind my right ear. Then, there were suddenly four patches in the top crown area of my head.
I’m tall – 5 feet 10-1/2 inches – so few people see the top of my head. Still, the bald spots are there so it was time for a visit with a dermatologist. He examined my scalp and pronounced that “stress often brings on this kind of hair loss.” Yes, stress. Had I had any stress in my life? Is there an individual or family living through the year 2020 who has not experienced stress? And while not every reaction to stress manifests in alopecia, greater numbers of cases are being reported.
The American Hair Loss Association reports that 40 percent of all hair loss sufferers are women. The American Academy of Dermatology reports that 30 million women in the United States suffer from hereditary hair loss, compared with 50 million men, though some researchers suspect the numbers are much higher. For women, other factors include hormonal fluctuations and damage inflicted by styling tools, hair dyes and chemical treatments. And incidents of temporary hair loss are increasing daily in the US.
Alopecia areata, which is my diagnosis, is thought to be caused by autoimmune issues; and often people who suffer from it also suffer from arthritis or other autoimmune diseases. In my case, the dermatologist offered treatment with steroid injections (the body produces its own steroids but sometimes needs supplements), or a prescription for minoxidil (Rogaine). But considering that the first patch, the large one behind my left ear, had already started to regrow, I declined treatment.
As we age, hair changes. It can lose its shine, natural waviness or natural curl and it can recede. Pulling the hair tight into a pony tail, for example, over a period of years can cause the hairline to recede and bald patches to occur – this is alopecia traction. Alopecia totalis is a condition that causes loss of all the hair on the scalp and may affect eyelashes, eyebrows and other body hair. Male pattern baldness and female pattern baldness are often genetic in nature but these can become more pronounced over the years and scientific research is paving the way for new treatments that may be just around the corner. Daily loss of 20-100 hairs is normal and one doctor told me, “No one over the age of 50 has hair like they had when they were teenagers.”
So what can I do about my alopecia? One friend advised me to find a good wig shop, make an appointment, and go in and try on wigs. Ordinarily, that would be advice I’d take – but with the pandemic raging, I’m just not comfortable visiting a shop even though I respect the cleanliness and sanitizing efforts of most businesses.
I spent some time checking online options, and finally I ordered a full wig. A ‘topper’ might be a good option, but I felt that without seeing the actual color, I could not be sure it would look realistic on top of my head. A full wig, I reasoned, would cover all the bald spots. Since the dermatologist suggested that many cases of alopecia can be temporary and see the hair regrowing in about a year, cutting my hair short and wearing a wig would give my scalp time to recuperate and regrow.
My hairdresser has helped adjust the wig and has styled it so it has a very realistic look. I feel like I look “whole” and now, in the wintertime, a wig keeps my head warm. Will my hair regrow by about this time next year? Who knows – but I’m certainly anticipating that, while I may look different and my hair may not have the same texture or quality, Nature will take over and I’ll see my case of alopecia areata wafted away on the breeze.