Alopecia Areata

Alopecia areata (AA) ranks as the third most common form of hair loss seen by dermatologists, following androgenetic alopecia and telogen effluvium. The lifetime risk of developing AA is nearly 2%, meaning that approximately two out of every 100 individuals will experience AA at some point in their lives. Importantly, AA is not contagious; it cannot be transmitted from one person to another.

Researchers posit that AA is an autoimmune disease, akin to rheumatoid arthritis. However, in AA, an individual’s own immune system targets hair follicles instead of bone joints. The exact cause of AA’s development remains unclear. Nonetheless, the immune system becomes inappropriately activated, leading to the attack on hair follicles. Studies involving various disease models suggest that specific types of lymphocytes play a primary role in inducing hair loss. These lymphocytes mistakenly perceive hair follicles as threats to the body.

AA is not limited by gender or age; it can affect men, women, and children alike. The condition often manifests as well-defined circular bald patches on the scalp. While many individuals might only experience one or two patches, some may encounter more extensive hair loss. Unfortunately, children who develop AA before puberty are most prone to experiencing severe and prolonged hair loss.

Complete hair loss across the entire scalp is termed alopecia totalis, and if it spreads to cover the entire body, including the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, beard, and pubic hair, the condition is known as alopecia universalis. When hair loss is confined to the beard area in men, it’s referred to as alopecia barbae.

The inflammation associated with AA primarily targets the hair follicle roots deep within the skin. Consequently, there is minimal visible evidence on the skin’s surface. Redness is absent, and pain is often not present, although some individuals may experience itchiness or sensitivity to touch during the initial stages of AA development. Generally, there is a lack of sensation—just intermittent hair shedding.

Hair loss can occur quite suddenly, materializing within a matter of days, and can appear anywhere on the scalp. The affected area usually showcases smooth, bald skin, with hair absence as the only apparent feature. Unlike other autoimmune diseases, the hair follicles—targeted by the inflammatory response—are not completely destroyed and can regenerate if inflammation subsides.

Individuals with a solitary or limited number of AA patches often experience full and spontaneous recovery within two years, regardless of whether treatment is received. Nevertheless, around 30% of individuals may face persistent and extensive hair loss, or they could undergo cycles of hair loss and regrowth.

Traditionally, AA has been linked to stress as a cause. Regrettably, this perception still persists, even among some dermatologists, despite limited scientific evidence to support it.

AA is a more intricate condition. While extreme stress might trigger AA in some individuals, recent research highlights genetic involvement as well. Multiple genes might contribute to an individual’s susceptibility to AA. The more of these genes a person possesses, the higher their likelihood of developing AA.

Certain researchers contend that a broad spectrum of factors might collectively render someone more susceptible to AA. Hormones, allergies, viruses, and even toxins could contribute. Likely, a combination of these factors activates AA in a given individual.

Treatments for Alopecia

Various treatments exist for AA, although none offer universal effectiveness, and some individuals with AA may not respond to any treatment. Due to potential high-risk side effects, some treatments are typically not used for children.

A prevalent treatment for AA involves corticosteroids. Corticosteroid creams applied to bald patches are common among dermatologists; however, this approach is mainly successful for mild cases. A more potent method entails injecting corticosteroid solutions into bald patches. While effective for some, vigilant monitoring is essential to prevent side effects such as skin thinning at injection sites.

For extensive cases, systemic corticosteroids (administered orally or in another form) might be used, although not continuously due to significant side effects like bone thinning. Short-term “pulse therapy” often yields positive outcomes.

More specialized treatments involve applying contact sensitizing chemicals to the skin, inducing an allergic reaction that can foster hair growth. This counterintuitive approach appears to work. Experimental methods, including “biologics,” containing immune cell-interfering protein fragments, are being explored. Biologics are injected systemically to dampen immune activity and promote hair regrowth. Results from these trials are eagerly anticipated.

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New Treatment Advances: Jak Inhibitors for Alopecia Areata

Baricitinib, known by its commercial name Olumiant, has secured a landmark approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an oral Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitor to address severe alopecia areata (AA) in adults. This notable regulatory decision was recently achieved, with the FDA granting its endorsement in June 2022.

In assessing the effectiveness of baricitinib, the clinical trials embraced a stringent definition of severe AA, involving notable scalp hair loss. Importantly, the FDA’s authorization for Olumiant in AA doesn’t tether to a specific percentage of hair loss, granting medical practitioners the flexibility to engage in a comprehensive assessment of the condition’s severity. Elements like emotional and psychosocial impact, alongside the engagement of eyebrows and eyelashes, could influence the treatment strategy for each patient. As such, consulting a healthcare provider is advised to determine the appropriateness of Olumiant (baricitinib) as a viable treatment avenue.

The underlying mechanism of action in alopecia areata (AA) revolves around an autoimmune response that targets hair follicles, disrupting the natural cycle of hair growth. This immune assault is orchestrated by cytokines—signaling molecules—utilizing Janus kinase (JAK) proteins within cellular pathways. JAK inhibitors, classified as small molecules, hold the power to impede these immune signaling routes that fuel the attack on hair follicles in AA. Olumiant (baricitinib) is firmly positioned within the realm of JAK inhibitors. By curbing JAK signaling, cytokine production diminishes, leading to reduced inflammation and facilitating hair regrowth.

Olumiant is presented in the form of oral tablets, designed for daily usage. While the standard dosage is generally prescribed for most patients, variations may be employed for individuals facing extensive scalp hair loss. Available in tablet forms of varying dosages, Olumiant should be adhered to meticulously as prescribed by a physician.

The effectiveness and safety profile of Olumiant were meticulously examined in clinical trials encompassing adults contending with severe AA. The restoration of hair was meticulously evaluated across a defined treatment period. In aggregate, a statistically significant proportion of participants grappling with severe AA and subjected to Olumiant treatment attained a notable increase in scalp coverage compared to those who were administered a placebo.

Analysis of the outcomes from the clinical trials unveiled that, within the treatment cohorts, a considerable number of patients accomplished substantial scalp hair coverage. Additionally, a noteworthy segment of patients adhering to the prescribed Olumiant dosage achieved a commendable level of hair coverage post-treatment.

Commonly reported adverse effects stemming from clinical trials of Olumiant for alopecia areata encompass upper respiratory tract infections, headaches, acne, elevated cholesterol levels, increased muscle enzyme levels, urinary tract infections, heightened liver enzyme levels, folliculitis, fatigue, lower respiratory tract infections, nausea, genital yeast infections, anemia, neutropenia, abdominal pain, herpes zoster, and weight gain.

It’s imperative to highlight boxed warnings, colloquially referred to as “black box warnings,” which serve as crucial safety signals mandated by the FDA to underscore significant risks linked to a particular drug. These warnings generally pertain to a group or class of medications, rather than isolated drugs.

Regarding Olumiant and other JAK inhibitor drugs, the boxed warning underscores potential risks such as severe infections, mortality, cancer, cardiovascular events, and clotting. This cautionary note is rooted in a study involving tofacitinib, another JAK inhibitor, conducted among patients with specific medical conditions.

When exploring treatment options, prudent practice involves comprehensive dialogue with a healthcare provider, taking into account personal and familial medical history, smoking habits, and potential medication-linked risks. Notably, Olumiant is contraindicated for pregnant or breastfeeding women and individuals contending with specific medical conditions.

Hair loss, especially in children and women who desire to blend in with their peers, can be disheartening. Support agencies for individuals with AA can be found in North America and many other parts of the world. Further information is available on the National Alopecia Areata Foundation website (