A study published today in a supplement of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology titled “Alopecia: A New Frontier” reveals that a new type of medication called JAK inhibitors can effectively treat moderate to severe alopecia areata – a type of hair loss – that has historically been difficult to treat.
“Because alopecia areata is an inflammatory condition, a JAK inhibitor will essentially reduce the inflammation that is fueling the disease and bring your immune system back into balance,” said board-certified dermatologist Sandra Johnson, MD, FAAD, who is an adjunct professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “The development of JAK inhibitors has given us another treatment to improve the lives of patients with alopecia areata.”
The most common sign of alopecia areata is often sudden hair loss, Dr. Johnson said. The patches of hair loss can grow larger, and sometimes become one large bald spot, or spread to your entire head or body.
While anyone can get alopecia areata, the disease is more common in children, those who have a close blood relative who has the disease, and people who have been treated for cancer with a drug called nivolumab, Dr. Johnson said. Having other medical conditions such as asthma, hay fever, eczema, thyroid disease, vitiligo, and Down syndrome also increases a person’s risks for developing alopecia areata.
Courtney Martens first noticed a bald patch about the size of a silver dollar on her scalp when she was 38. She quickly started losing more hair, and eventually lost all hair on her scalp, eyebrows, and eyelashes.
In 2017, Martens learned that she had a condition called alopecia areata, an immune disease that causes the body to attack its own hair follicles, which in turn results in bald spots. Two years later, the Edmond, Okla. mother-of-two heard about a clinical trial at Dr. Johnson’s practice in Fort Smith, Ark., where she received treatment and was able to completely regrow her hair.
“It’s pretty traumatizing,” Martens said. “Most people think it’s just hair, but it was exhausting because it became what everybody talked about. It was like I lost my identity because I was always the girl with pretty hair growing up.”
In order to diagnose someone with alopecia areata, a dermatologist will examine the area where the hair loss has occurred as well as a person’s nails, according to Dr. Johnson. Blood tests may be necessary to rule out other diseases caused by the immune system.
In addition to JAK inhibitors, treatment options for alopecia areata include contact immunotherapy, which can change your immune system so that it stops attacking your hair follicles; a disease-modifying antirheumatic medication called methotrexate; and corticosteroids, which are an anti-inflammatory medicine.
In Marten’s case, she was prescribed a JAK inhibitor.
Throughout her treatment, Martens said she tried to maintain a positive outlook and hope for the best. She said she feels blessed that the treatment worked for her.
“We now have more treatment options than ever before for alopecia areata patients, and they are providing results for people for whom previous treatments were not effective,” said Dr. Johnson. “It’s important to know that no one treatment works for everyone. Your board-certified dermatologist can recommend the treatment options that work best for you.”