Alopecia areata ("AA" for short) is an autoimmune condition that will affect about 1.7% of the world's population at some point in their lives. Many patients with AA develop hair loss in round or oval shaped patches. The individual shown in the photos has a fairly typical presentation.
There are a variety of treatments for AA including topical steroids, steroid injections, diphencyprone, anthralin, prednisone, methotrexate, sulfasalazine, tofacitinib.
Minoxidil for Treating AA
I include topical minoxidil in a large proportion of the treatment plans that I recommend for my own patients. Minoxidil is a topical product that is available in both generic forms as well as popular trade names such as "Rogaine" in North America and "Regain" in part of Europe. Studies dating back to the 1980s have shown very clearly that minoxidil is beneficial in patients with alopecia areata. My personal view is that it does not usually help on its own if one were to use it as the only treatment (i.e. 'mono therapy) but can help when added to a treatment plan that involves any of the treatment agents listed above. When I prescribe a plan that includes use of topical steroids or steroid injections, I frequently include minoxidil on the plan. Even with anthralin or DPCP, I frequently recommend my patients use minoxidil as well.
Minoxidil in AA: Clearing up the Many Myths and Misconceptions.
There are certain many myths, confusions and inaccurate information when it comes to using minoxidil for alopecia areata. Here I will review a few common myths.
Confusion 1: Do I need to use it forever? Everyone tells me I do!
The 'rule' that minoxidil needs to be used forever and that one will lose hair if they stop applies to the use of minoxidil for men and women with a hair loss condition known as andoagenetic alopecia (i.e. male and female balding). These so called rules do not necessary apply to alopecia areata. Once hair starts growing really well again in those with alopecia areata, it is frequently possible for many to stop the use of minoxidil and still keep their hair. OF course, minoxidil may be needed again in the future were a patch of hair loss to occur again. However, the purchase of one bottle of minoxidil does not necessarily commit one to a lifetime of use.
Confusion 2: The bottle says not to use it if I have patches of hair loss! What am I to do?
It is important to understand that minoxidil is only FDA approved for treating genetic hair loss. It has not gone through the million dollar rigours of the FDA approval process to have it formally approved for treating alopecia areata. However, we know from very good studies one the last 30-40 years that minoxidil does help patients with alopecia areata. Therefore, any such use in alopecia areata is said to be 'off label.' Because minoxidil is formally approved only for androgenetic alopecia the companies can not advertise that it helps other hair loss conditions. It is illegal for companies to write on their packaging that this product can be used in alopecia areata, traction alopecia, some forms of scarring alopecia. As a physician however, I can recommend it to certain patients with these conditions if I feel it will be helpful. However, the only thing that can be advertised by the companies is that it can be used in androgenetic alopecia.
Confusion 3: I've heard minoxidil can cause hair loss. I'm terrified to start.
It is very well known that men and women who use minoxidil for treating 'androgenetic alopecia' (male and female balding) can developed hair loss in the first two months of use. This is because minoxidil triggers hairs in the telogen phase to exist fairly quickly over a span of a few weeks. This phenomenon can also happen in alopecia areata but one must remember that what is actually happening in most individuals is that minoxidil is triggering older injured hairs to exist and helping to facilitate new stronger hairs to reemerge. Most of the time a patient with alopecia areata who says their hair is worsening and worries that it is the minoxidil that is causing the worsening is actually just experiencing a worsening of their disease. For these individuals the minoxidil is not causing the hair to fall out more - it is the disease itself that is causing this. This individual needs more aggressive treatment.
Confusion 4: Should I use 2 % or 5 %? Should I use minoxidil drops or the foam?
There is no 'one answer' for all patients. The decision on what type of minoxidil to use should be reviewed on a case by case basis. In general, if one is going to use minoxidil, they should just get the product on the scalp consistency. There are situations where I recommend the 2 % lotion and there are situations where the 5 % foam is perfect. The benefit of the older lotion is that a patient can more carefully control the dosing. Instead of using 1/2 cap of the foam, a patient using the lotion is allowed to use up to 1 mL (25 drops). This frequently allows more of the product to be spread all around the scalp. In addition, if a patient is very sensitive to the effects of minoxidil and develops headaches or dizziness and there are worries about the effects of minoxidil on the heart, I may recommend 2 % minoxidil and start with 4-6 drops and slowly work up to 25. The key is to get the product on the scalp.
Minoxidil has been used as therapy for treating alopecia areata for over 3 decades. Its use is off label but given its generally good safety profile, it its an important consideration. I frequently combine it with many treatments I recommend for AA.
Price VH. Double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of topical minoxidil in extensive alopecia areata. Clinical Trial. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1987.