So folks won’t worry…

Many friends already know about this, but I’ve been meaning to post about it here so I could drop in a link and head off any worry from people who might spot it later.

A few months ago, I developed a completely harmless but rather annoying condition called alopecia areata. Literally, it means a loss of hair over some area. More specifically, this particular condition is an auto-immune skin condition where the white blood cells for some reason decide to attack the hair follicles in a certain area. The follicles effectively “shut off” (but remain alive), and the hair in that area eventually falls out, leaving perfectly healthy, but hairless, skin. It’s distinct from male pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia) both in its mechanism and in what it looks like (the bald patches can appear in any location).

In my case, it showed up as a bald patch on the back of my head. So far, some creative hair styling techniques have kept it fairly non-obvious, and very few people have spotted it without me pointing it out (or at least very few people have mentioned it to me). There is no underlying medical concern. It’s not a sign or symptom of a more serious problem. There’s a pretty good chance that the condition will “go away”, and the hair will regrow within a year or two. There’s also a decent chance that more patches will form. If the problem starts becoming obvious, I will probably join Jason and Stephen in invoking the “nuclear option” and just shave it all off. :) Since I’ve learned the condition is harmless, I’ve mostly stopped worrying about it. My main concern now is making sure it doesn’t worry other people. That’s part of the reason for this post.

Thinking about this has been an interesting mental exercise. Hair loss in general can be a psychologically traumatic experience, and seemingly random hair loss even more so. I have thought a bit about why that is. The best thing I can come up with is that I think most people (including me before I learned about alopecia areata) associate non-pattern hair loss with cancer treatments or some other serious illness. For most people with alopecia areata, the most serious effect is not medical but psychological. The condition affects almost 2% of the general population at some point in their lives, but very few people know about it, so it’s another one of those things where spreading knowledge can be helpful… especially for people who have much more serious cases than I do.

So, bottom line: if you look at me and see it, don’t worry. If you’re curious, ask me about it. The condition is not contagious in any way, and the affected area of skin is otherwise completely normal, so I’ll even show it to you if you ask. :) If at some point I suddenly show up with a shaved head, you’ll know why. In the meantime, if you’re curious and want to learn more, here’s a very good web site with lots of information:

National Alopecia Areata Foundation