University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Mary Stone, MD
Associate Professor of Dermatology and Pathology
First Published: November 2000
Last Revised: August 2003
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
Janie noticed the pea-sized, smooth patch of skin on her scalp,
but gave it little thought. She thought it would go away. A few
months later, she found large amounts of hair in the shower drain,
and noticed that the once tiny spot had grown and two others were
"If your hair is falling out, leaving round smooth patches on your
skin, you may have a condition called alopecia areata," says Dr. Mary
Stone, associate professor of dermatology and pathology at the
University of Iowa College of Medicine and UI Hospitals and Clinics
"It is a fairly common condition affecting about one in 100
people. Alopecia areata occurs among men, women, and children," Stone
says. The scalp is the most commonly affected part of the body, but
men's beards or any hair-bearing part of the body can also be
"Alopecia areata likely is an autoimmune disease, where the body's
defenses attack the body's cells. It appears that your body actually
fights off your hair," Stone says.
Hair normally grows about six inches per year. People with alopecia areata
have follicles that
produce abnormal hairs that break close to the surface of the
scalp, she explains. "During this time, no hair is visible. It can
last for several months, even years," Stone says.
The hair follicles are not permanently destroyed and can resume normal growth, Stone says. "The less hair
that's been lost, the more likely it will grow back. In more severe
cases, hair sometimes doesn't grow back. If you have lost large
amounts of body hair, there's no safe, effective treatment, although
the condition may reverse on its own," Stone says.
"Though the cause of alopecia areata is not known, some people
report that hair loss worsens under stress, but this hasn't been
scientifically proven," she adds.
Heredity may also play a part in
the disease. According to the National
Alopecia Areata Foundation, one of five persons with the disease
has a family member that has had the same condition.
Alopecia areata is not physically disabling. "In fact, people with
alopecia areata are usually healthy and physically fit," Stone says,
"but it can be emotionally troubling.
"Although there are no cures, we have treatment options, which
vary with the person's age and extent of hair loss. People with a few
patchy areas usually receive cortisone injections--the most common
treatment--into the affected areas," Stone says. Other treatments
include applying an anthralin cream or ointment, cortisone creams, or
a minoxidil solution.
If you think you may have alopecia areata, see your physician.