Hair loss can be a distressing symptom for anyone to experience. But for those with autoimmune diseases, excessive shedding or thinning hair is unfortunately a common occurrence. Many autoimmune conditions directly impact the hair follicles and skin, leading to temporary or permanent balding.
What autoimmune diseases cause hair loss?
There are several autoimmune diseases that can trigger hair loss or alopecia. Some of the most common include:
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that specifically targets the hair follicles, causing round bald patches on the scalp or complete hair loss. It is thought to be caused by T cells attacking the follicle as if it were a foreign invader. This disrupts the hair growth cycle, leading to sudden shedding and thinning hair.
Lupus is a disease where the immune system becomes overactive and creates antibodies that attack healthy tissues like the skin and joints. When lupus affects the scalp, it causes inflammation and scarring that damage follicles and prevent hair regrowth. Thinning hair or hair loss may occur.
Up to 50% of people with psoriasis experience hair loss. Psoriasis speeds up the hair cycle, causing a high number of follicles to temporarily enter the resting phase. The buildup of skin cells from psoriasis can also clog follicles and prevent new hair from growing.
Vitiligo is a condition where the immune system destroys melanocytes, which provide pigment to the skin and hair. This causes white patches on the skin and whitening or graying of the hair in those spots as melanin production decreases.
Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can both trigger hair loss. The thyroid gland regulates metabolism, and thyroid hormones directly control the hair growth cycle. When thyroid levels are too high or low, this disrupts the cycle and more hairs than normal enter the shedding phase.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes painful swelling of the joints. Chronic inflammation from RA can interfere with the hair growth cycle, shifting more follicles into the resting phase. Certain RA medications may also contribute to hair thinning.
Scleroderma causes collagen to build up under the skin and around hair follicles. This can lead to significant hair loss on the scalp and body, as well as skin thickening. The skin may take on a smooth, tight appearance as the hair thinning progresses.
Polymyositis involves immune cells mistakenly attacking the muscles, leading to inflammation and weakness. Hair loss occurs in about 15% of people with polymyositis, likely due to its effects on the skin and disruption of the hair growth cycle.
Sarcoidosis leads to abnormal lumps or granulomas forming in organs like the lungs, skin, and lymph nodes. When sarcoidosis affects the scalp, the granulomas can damage hair follicles, causing bald patches, thinning hair, and scarring.
Sjögren’s syndrome damages the body's exocrine system, including salivary and tear glands, leading to dryness. Hair thinning from Sjögren's is thought to result from dry skin and sebaceous glands on the scalp, which compromises follicle health.
Autoimmune diseases commonly contribute to excessive hair loss and thinning hair. The immune system mistakenly attacking healthy hair follicles disrupts the normal hair growth cycle. Managing the underlying autoimmune condition is key to stopping hair loss. Treatments like steroids, biologics and immunosuppressants may help minimize immune-system damage to follicles. With proper treatment, the prognosis for autoimmune hair loss is often good over the long term.
In addition to medical treatment, changing hair care routines to be gentle, using thickening products, trying laser devices, and practicing stress reduction can also aid hair regrowth. For severe cases, options like hair transplants may be considered to permanently restore hair. Working closely with both a dermatologist and rheumatologist allows those with autoimmune diseases to get to the root of their hair loss problem.
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