The immune system functions to recognize and eliminate foreign invaders. When the immune system fails to tell the different between foreign invaders and normal healthy cells, autoimmune diseases result. Autoimmune diseases are considered a major health problem, according to American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. These diseases can affect every part of the body, causing a major amount of symptoms, including hair loss. So, what are these autoimmune diseases and how to know you have one?
Autoimmune diseases and The immune system
As mentioned before, our bodies have an immune system, which is a complex network of special cells and organs that defends the body from foreign invaders. At the core of the immune system is the ability to tell the difference between healthy and non-healthy cells. However, when something’s wrong with this system, it becomes unable to recognize the difference between cells. In this case, the body makes autoantibodies that attack normal cells by mistake. When this happens, the body’s functions begin to act against normal causing in a wide rang of symptoms. About 80 to 100 autoimmune diseases have been identified, affecting 23.5 million Americans. Here are some of the common ones and their symptoms:
The immune system attacks hair follicles (the structures from which hair grows). It usually does not
threaten health, but it can greatly affect the way a person looks. When white blood cells attack hair follicles, they interrupt the hair growth cycle leading to small round patches of hair loss. Alopecia areata affects approximately 2 percent of the United States population, most frequently children and young adults. Luckily, this disease is treatable and so is the hair loss it causes.
This is one of the chronic autoimmune diseases that affect approximately 1.5 million Americans, according to the Lupus Foundation. Although the exact cause of lupus remains a mystery, because lupus tends to occur within families, doctors know that genetics plays a role.Lupus affects many different systems and organs in the body, creating a wide range of symptoms. Common symptoms include:
- Painful joints
- Abnormal blood clotting
- Hair loss.
Hashimoto’s Disease (chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis)
This disease causes the thyroid to not make enough thyroid hormone. It occurs when the cells of the immune system attack the thyroid gland that produces hormones that regulate many of the body’s activities. Hashimoto’s disease causes inflammation of the gland, which interferes with its ability to function, resulting in an underactive thyroid. This disease progresses slowly, producing few symptoms until the level of thyroid hormones drops significantly. The common symptoms are:
- Sluggishness hair loss.
- Sensitivity to cold.
- Puffy face.
- Hoarse voice.
- Unexplained weight gain.
- Muscle aches.
Antiphospholipid (APL) (antibody syndrome )
This is an autoimmune disease which can cause frequent clotting in arteries and veins and/or
miscarriages. The clotting results from the presence of proteins in the blood called anti-phospholipid autoantibodies (commonly called aPL) formed against the person’s own tissues. Symptoms are:
- Blood clots in veins or arteries
- Multiple miscarriages
- Lacy, net-like red rash on the wrists and knees
The immune system attacks and destroys the liver cells. Unfortunately, this can lead to scarring and hardening of the liver, and possibly liver failure. This is a life threatening disease that needs immediate treatment.
Diabetes type 1
A disease in which the immune system attacks the cells that make insulin, a hormone needed to control blood sugar levels. Without insulin, too much sugar stays in your blood. As a result, a person may face many sever diseases such as heart attacks, kidney failure and many other health problems.
Graves’ disease (overactive thyroid)
This is an immune system disorder that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism). Although a number of disorders may result in hyperthyroidism, Graves’ disease is a common cause. Because thyroid hormones affect a number of different body systems, Garves’ disease symptoms can be wide ranging and significantly influence the overall well-being. Although this disease may affect anyone, it’s more common among women and before the age of 40.
Systemic Sclerosis (Scleroderma)
This autoimmune disease is typically common in people of 30 to 50 years old. However, it can develop at any age. Women are more likely than men to suffer from this condition. And the symptoms and severity of the condition vary from one person to another. In the early stages of this disease, you may notice your skin thickening and shiny areas developing around your mouth, nose, fingers, and other bony areas. As the condition progresses, you may notice several symptoms including excessive hair shedding.
Autoimmune diseases that cause hair loss
Hair loss occurs when the cycle of hair growth is disrupted or when the hair follicle is destroyed and replaced with scar tissue. Although not life-threatening, hair loss caused by diseases can be disturbing and needs treatment before it affects the person’s self confidence. The hair cycle can be disturbed due to many factors including autoimmune diseases that make the immune system attack every cell in the body including hair follicles. As a result, excessive hair shedding can occur along with other symptoms and sings. Here are the common autoimmune diseases that cause hair shedding/loss.
- Alopecia Areata
- Systemic Sclerosis (Scleroderma)
- Graves’ disease
- Hashimoto’s Disease
When a person notices an abnormal hair shedding specially when hair comes out in patches, it is recommended to see a doctor. An early diagnosis can prevent any health condition from developing into a life threatening disease. Therefore, treating hair loss can be easier and more effective. First, your dermatologist will try to determine the underlying cause of your hair loss based on a physical examination and your health history. If she/he suspects an autoimmune or skin disease, they might take a biopsy of the skin on your scalp. Because autoimmune diseases mistakenly attack healthy cells, therefore, treating the diseases should come in first. Finally, after treating the disease that causes shedding, you can treat hair loss. However, growing hair specially after an excessive shedding may take long time but will grow eventually.