Updated on April 1, 2020. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune skin disorder affecting about one percent of the population, including children. It happens when the body’s immune system attacks hair follicles. Through activating CB2 receptors present in the immune system, cannabis has been known to help decrease inflammation and treat autoimmune diseases. This medical marijuana and alopecia areata guide can help you to learn more about how cannabis can help you with your symptoms.
Alopecia areata is where you have patchy hair loss on your body or scalp, and people of any age can develop it. While it’s not life-threatening, losing your hair can cause psychological trauma. Researchers don’t completely understand its cause yet, but they do have a rough theory.
Scientists believe alopecia areata (AA) occurs when your immune system’s white blood cells attack hair follicles, keeping them from generating any hair. An autoimmune disorder occurs when your immune system mistakenly believes there’s a disease in part of your tissue and attacks it. The outcome depends on how effective your tissue is at defending itself while it attempts to grow back regularly.
Typically, dermatologists closely examine your scalp to diagnose AA and rule out other potential hair loss causes. AA appears as a sudden smooth bald patch. You may experience some very mild pain or a tingling sensation in the area affected. Although you notice alopecia areata more on the scalp, other areas of the body where AA can form include:
As it grows, the disorder begins spreading out on the edges, causing your hairs on the edge to thin out at the roots until they start falling out. You’ll have stubble left over at the edge that is thinning at the bottom, and many say it looks similar to an exclamation point. When you can pull hair out easily, you can consider the AA active and should expect further hair loss. And, when you notice more hair in your brush, it indicates more spots.
Not all cases of alopecia areata are noticeable, and with these cases, the dermatologist will need to take a small biopsy of the skin to examine microscopically. The most confusion comes from skin diseases like:
Many cases begin with just a few patches lasting for several months — or possibly a year — and then the growth of healthy hair quickly resumes.
Doctors don’t know the exact reason for AA. As mentioned, they believe alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder because your immune system attacks your hair follicles — the skin area where your hair grows. However, there’s no known definitive reason why the body begins attacking its hair follicles. Researchers and scientists believe your genes might have some role in this, but that doesn’t mean your children will inherit the disorder.
Regardless of whether you’re born with the specific genes that increase your risk of getting the disease, something must trigger the disease process. This could be something in your environment or a virus.
In general, there are three types of AA:
Although Hippocrates used the term “alopecia,” Cornelius Celsus first described the disease’s characteristics we now refer to as AA in 30 A.D.
From the 1800s on, a substantial debate has been going on about the actual cause of AA. A few hypotheses included:
At the beginning of the 20th century, doctors believed alopecia areata had an association with endocrine gland disorders — especially the thyroid. Another hypothesis came about in the early 20th century describing alopecia areata being based on toxic agents. This has led to today ’s most popular belief that is AA an autoimmune disorder.
The primary side effect of AA is hair loss. Your hair starts falling out in round, small patches on your scalp. The spots are typically a few centimeters or less. Other parts of your body may experience hair loss, as well. You may first begin noticing clumps of your hair in the shower or on your pillow. But, there are other diseases possibly leading to hair loss in the same fashion, meaning the diagnosis of alopecia areata shouldn’t come from hair loss alone.
Some individuals, in rare cases, might experience more significant hair loss — typically indicating another form of alopecia. AA-related hair loss is random and unpredictable. Your hair could fall out, grow back and then fall out again at any time. Each person is different in the extent they lose hair and regrow it.
You may experience a deterioration in hair follicles, but your skin’s oil-producing glands don’t change that much. Your skin doesn’t become atrophied or hard, and only in sporadic cases do you lose all your hair. Childhood cases are often more severe than adult-onset diagnoses.
Alopecia areata complications include symptoms, secondary disorders or other conditions AA causes. Many times, doctors can’t differentiate the difference between the symptoms caused by AA and its complications. Some complications might include:
Many individuals have a harder time dealing with the emotional manifestations of the disease than the physical ones. A lot of individuals with AA are typically healthy otherwise, and AA in itself isn’t a sign of a life-threatening disorder.
In fact, there are rarely any physically harmful effects — however, the disease can cause psychological consequences, including high levels of depression and anxiety. Since medical treatment to treat AA has limited effectiveness, and there isn’t a way to cure the disorder, many patients feel distressed. After all, AA is a type of disfigurement, which may wreak havoc on an individual’s sense of identity. In some cases, AA is the result of a traumatic event. Having to deal with an AA diagnosis after a trauma makes coping with the event itself difficult.
According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation:
In some cases, a dermatologist can look at the hair loss to come up with a diagnosis. The doctor can pull out some of the hairs if the hair loss patch is expanding. They then look at these hairs under a microscope.
The dermatologist may have to take a sample skin biopsy to confirm if its alopecia areata. They study a small piece of your skin under a microscope. If they suspect you have a different autoimmune disease, they’ll take some blood tests.
Alopecia areata currently has no cure. In some cases, the hair will regrow by itself, but treatment can help quicken the hair regrowth process. Your dermatologist might prescribe any of these four medications to help stimulate the regrowth of your hair.
Corticosteroids suppress your immune system. Your dermatologist may inject this medication into the areas you have hair loss. You may receive a topical like a lotion, cream or ointment you apply directly on the bare spots. In rare cases, you can take corticosteroid pills.
Adults with AA often receive a corticosteroid injection every three to six weeks, and hair begins regrowing around four weeks from the last dose. Topical corticosteroids aren’t as effective as injections and are usually prescribed to children.
Long-term use of corticosteroids may cause side effects such as:
Minoxidil is a hair regrowth medication designed for both adults and children. You apply it to your scalp, beard or brows twice a day. It may take around three months for new hair to start growing. Individuals tend to take this medication along with another treatment. Side effects may include:
Anthralin alters the immune function of your skin — you apply it to your skin and let it sit for up to an hour, then wash it off to avoid skin irritation. Dermatologists typically refer to this as short-contact therapy. Side effects may include:
4. Diphencyprone (DPCP)
AA patients can apply this medication to any bare skin. The drug triggers a small allergic reaction where you experience swelling, redness and itching that is said to trick your immune system, causing it to send white blood cells to your scalp’s surface to fight inflammation. The medication also keeps your hair follicles from sleeping and leading to hair loss.
While you will experience a temporary, mild allergic reaction with itching and redness, other side effects may include severe burning, itching, blistering or swelling of the areas treated.
Alopecia areata is a medical condition resulting in hair loss in some or all areas of an individual’s body. Alopecia usually starts in the scalp and can cause bald spots on the scalp, especially in the beginning stages of the disease.
Different variations of alopecia include alopecia areata monoculars, which refers to baldness only in one designated spot and may occur anywhere on the head, and alopecia areata multilocularis, which refers to hair loss in multiple areas. If left untreated — or if the disease does not respond to treatments — complete baldness can result in the affected area.
Qualified physicians recommend treating alopecia with medical marijuana because of the herb’s ability to help a patient’s immune system become properly functioning and suppressed. Scientists suspect the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) is responsible for multiple regulatory functions in both disease and health. Studies show a functional ECS in the skin exists and contributes to several different biological processes, such as:
The role of marijuana in decreasing inflammation and treating autoimmune disease has long been known — it does this by interacting with CB2 receptors in your immune system. By activating your nervous system’s CB1 receptors, cannabis can also lower the stress that could damage your hair and cause problems in other areas of your body.
Marijuana treatment can help with:
Irregular behavior in your immune system causes chronic inflammation and can result in joint, tissue and organ damage. Cannabis can efficiently reduce inflammation caused by various diseases and help you manage the pain these inflammation-related conditions cause.
Although inflammation is your immune system’s response to bacteria, injury and viruses, your immune system can call on inflammation unnecessarily at times. The inflammation response, when called upon appropriately, can help efficiently remove damaging or infectious stimuli so your body can begin its natural healing process. But, when inflammation is unnecessarily called upon, like with an autoimmune disease, your immune system responds like it would if the tissues are abnormal or infected even when they’re normal. Eventually, this leads to your body damaging its own tissues.
An active, well-balanced immune system will trigger acute inflammation to deal with diseases and injuries. However, when your immune system is not functioning correctly, it triggers chronic inflammation because it doesn’t shut the inflammatory response off.
Inflammation is at the center of many chronic conditions, including alopecia areata. Fortunately, some cannabis and alopecia areata strains can help. Talk to your budtender or medical marijuana doctor about the differences between indica, sativa and hybrid varieties, as well as how each strain can treat unique symptoms.
For example, here are a few strains ideal for patients experiencing hair loss:
Strains suitable for treating inflammation include:
The best cannabis delivery method for you depends on your specific symptoms, personal preferences and prioritization of strength, price, health, convenience and more. The most popular methods for AA patients include:
Though some of these techniques are more popular than others, it’s up to you to find the strains and ingestion methods that work best for you. If you’re trying to avoid your lungs’ exposure to smoke, try using topicals or taking edibles. Or, if feeling the effects immediately is essential to you, smoking and vaping are typically the best choice. Because of the different methods available to you, tailoring your treatment plan to your situation should be relatively easy.
Start your marijuana and alopecia areata treatment right away to begin experiencing relief from your symptoms. Continue browsing our site to get a feel for what we have to offer you. Then, search for a marijuana doctor who can help you get your recommendation and develop a treatment plan that will work best for you. After that, it’s just a matter of selecting a cannabis dispensary to fulfill your medical weed needs.
For more information about how cannabis can be used to treat alopecia areata , check out our resources: