Autoimmune Diseases That Cause Hair Loss

Kristin Hall, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 4/7/2021

Hair loss is a scary concept, especially in a culture where a full head of hair inspires confidence, and a receding hairline can cause shame. 

But while hair loss can have negative impacts on your self-confidence and well-being, it can sometimes be a signal that another underlying condition needs professional attention. Because in some cases, hair loss can be a symptom of an autoimmune disease. 

Autoimmune disease-based hair loss is known as alopecia areata, and it can ravage your hairline, eyelashes, and really any hair on your head. 

The bad news is that it’s both incurable and difficult to treat, but the good news is that there are some options. Before we talk about treatment options though, let’s break down a few important facts about alopecia areata and autoimmune hair loss.

What Is Alopecia Areata?

Alopecia areata is the name for hair loss due to autoimmune diseases. Essentially, in cases of alopecia areata, your autoimmune system attacks the hair follicles as foreign bodies. The damage they do can cause hair loss, which will eventually become permanent.

Here are some basic facts about alopecia areata: it’s not contagious, often developed during a person’s teens, and it can happen in unpredictable cycles.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, hair loss from this condition can manifest in a variety of ways. The hair loss can be patchy or widespread, and patches can jump from one location to another—they can heal and start elsewhere. While this condition frequently affects the scalp, it can also affect hair elsewhere on the body (this condition is called alopecia universalis).

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What Causes Alopecia Areata?

Alopecia areata can come from a variety of autoimmune diseases, including atopic dermatitis, asthma, hay fever, vitiligo, thyroid diseases, or down syndrome. 

Other diseases that can cause autoimmune hair loss include lichen planus, morphea, lichen sclerosus et atrophicus, pemphigus foliaceus, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, hypothyroidism, endemic goiter, Addison's disease, pernicious anemia, lupus erythematosus and diabetes mellitus.

According to one study, there is some strong evidence to suggest you’re more likely to have alopecia areata if you’re hispanic or black. 

However, this study was limited in that it only observed women, and the researchers noted that more studies need to be conducted before we know anything definitive.

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Treatment Options

Unfortunately, given the cause of this type of hair loss, there is no FDA-approved treatment for alopecia areata. In other words, there is no treatment for alopecia areata — just treatment for the diseases that cause it, and the symptoms. 

Some of the recommended treatments for alopecia areata are corticosteroids, which can either be injected directly into the bald spot, or topical applications. Both will be prescription strength, as recommended by a dermatologist.

Another effective treatment is the use of minoxidil (brand name Rogaine), which is a topical cream commonly used to encourage hair growth in locations where hair loss has been noted.

That said, it’s worth noting that because everyone’s treatment plan for alopecia areata is going to be different, each person’s reaction to their distinctive treatment plan will also be different. Work with your healthcare provider and trust the process. 

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What to Do If You Think You Have Alopecia Areata

If you’re seeing telltale signs of alopecia areata, consulting a healthcare professional is your first priority, particularly if you have no known autoimmune diseases. Normal hair loss can be a bummer, but hair loss due to treatable conditions is a big deal, and something that needs immediate attention. 

Based on your diagnosis, a healthcare provider may recommend treatments either for the disease itself, or for the hair loss, or both, but this is not one of those conditions you can effectively treat yourself without help.

With the right help, it’s possible you’ll still have some permanent hair loss, and chronic issues may reoccur unpredictably, but in either of those cases, having a professional both aware of and helping to monitor your condition is the best tool available to help you combat the problem. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.