WLOX Special Report: Lost Strands

SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - We comb it. We color it. We sometimes take it from granted until it starts to fall out. According to American Hair Loss Association, by the age of 35 approximately two thirds of men have some hair loss. Women aren't immune. Forty percent of those dealing with hair loss are women.

I was inspired to explore this topic from a person experience. A few years ago after washing my hair, I discovered a bald patch about the size of quarter. I went to the dermatologist who told me I had a condition known as Alopecia Areata. Within months, about 30 percent of my hair fell out.

In this special report, we're going to look at the causes of hair loss and some of treatments, and why people losing their strands say the last thing they want to hear is "it's just hair."

Elena Mitchell is a typical seven-year-old.

"I'm very good at art. I like to do art and I like to do drawings," said Elena.

Elena said the only real difference between her and her classmates at her Ocean Springs school is she doesn't have very much hair.

"I was in the bathtub and I was going underwater and my hair started falling off," said Elena. "We went to the doctor and they said they didn't know what it was. So we went to the doctor for a couple of times then the last time we went to the doctor they said it was Alopecia."

Elena has Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks the follicles causing the air to abruptly fall out. The hair can just as suddenly start growing back, which Elena's hair has done, just to fall out again. She's not sick or in physical pain, but there's emotional hurt.

Bonnie Munro is Elena's mother. She said typically one the first days of every school year, Elena will wear a hat to class and Bonnie will go in and explain her condition to her classmates. Munro said she tells the kids what Elena has isn't contagious. That has helped lessen the teasing and bullying, but not completely.

"We do have those days where she comes home and she's very sad. We will sit at home and we'll have the pity parties, but we put on our big girl panties and we go back out," Munro said. "It's almost a blessing in that I can let her know that it's truly just the outside. It's what's inside that matters and it's a lesson I'm teaching her now at a young age."

When their strands start falling out, many people turn to physicians, like internal medicine doctor Lynn Leatherwood, for help. Dr. Leatherwood says the most common form of hair loss is androgenetic, or what we call male pattern baldness. The doctor said the condition is not just limited to men.

"In male pattern baldness you have the vertex or crown balding where a bald spot appears and you have the receding hair line across the front," said Dr. Leatherwood. "In women, it's just a diffuse hair loss on top of their scalp."

Dr. Leatherwood said although this type of balding is hereditary, it can be controlled if treatments start at the first sign of trouble. For post-menopausal women, he suggests estrogen replacement. For men, there are other proven methods.

"Actually Finasteride, which is a product used to treat prostate disorders, is much more effective and is very effective at preventing hair loss," Dr. Leatherwood said. "It blocks the part of the testosterone, the metabolite of the testosterone, that causes the androgenetic hair loss. It's a very inexpensive product that I'm frankly surprised more people don't ask about."

Instead of asking their doctors for help, many people go looking for over-the-counter remedies. Just Google "hair loss treatments" and see how many ads pop up.

Dr. Leatherwood said, "There's a whole lot of unproven stuff that is of no benefit. Unfortunately, a lot of that over-the-counter market of stuff and herbal market has been shown to be unreliable. It is trying to take those desperate people that something out of desperation they'll buy, rather than out of real proven benefit."

As their strands disappear, many find themselves losing self-confidence. Tracey Sprayberry is a volunteer with Pink Heart Funds. The nonprofit organization helps people dealing with hair loss, be it from Alopecia Areata or from cancer treatments, by teaching them new styling techniques and fitting them with wigs. Sprayberry said it's work she loves.

"We went to a wig class back in the Spring and some of them have roots," said Sprayberry. "They have highlights. They look natural. I don't think you can even tell. Most of them that walk out of here, you can't even tell that it's a wig."

Breast cancer patient Becky Dennis learned how to draw on eyebrows during the class. She said all her life her long hair has been part of her identity.

"I'm not at the hair loss point yet. I know I will be," said Dennis.

Before chemo takes her hair, she plans to cut her long locks and donate her hair to make a wig for someone else. Dennis said for anyone dealing with major hair loss it helps to have that emotional support.

"As far as self-esteem, it's a journey," Dennis said. "Right now I have hair. I'll start to lose my hair. I'll be bald. Bald is beautiful. People are here to support us. It's okay."

Seven-year-old Elena Mitchell will be attending a camp this summer for children with Alopecia Areata. Elena said she's excited to meet other children with hair loss because at times she feels like she's the only one.

Find more resources online:

National Alopecia Areata Foundation: http://www.naaf.org

Pink Heart Funds: http://www.pinkheartfunds.org

Mississippi Alopecia Areata Support Group: https://www.facebook.com/MississippiAlopeciaAreataSupportGroup

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