Taking a detailed history is especially important when it comes to alopecia areata (AA), according to Maria Hordinsky, MD, professor and chair of the department of dermatology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Dr. Maria Hordinsky of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Dr. Maria Hordinsky

Other important steps in the work-up of a patient include extensive documentation of AA – including use of the Severity of Alopecia Tool (SALT) score or photography – and laboratory testing, Dr. Hordinsky said at the Skin Disease Education Foundation’s annual Las Vegas Dermatology Seminar.

AA affects an estimated 1.7%-2.1% of the population and is sporadic in 50%-80% of cases. AA targets follicles in the anagen phase, which makes up 90% of hair follicles and normally lasts for 2-7 years. The condition has been linked to vitiligo, thyroid disease, and atopy (allergic rhinitis, asthma, and atopic dermatitis). AA has also been linked to autoimmune disorders, such as lupus erythematosus, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and type 1 diabetes mellitus. In addition, Dr. Hordinsky said, genetic research has linked alopecia to the latter three conditions.

It’s important to ask how much the hair loss bothers the patient, regardless of his or her age, Dr. Hordinsky said. “You need to figure out what’s making them all anxious and depressed. Is it shedding hair every single day?” she said. “Figure out what bothers that patient and go after that issue after you’ve answered his or her questions.”

In some cases, she said, “patients who’ve had extensive disease for a very long time are really coming in for a social visit to talk about what’s new, what’s emerging, whether they’d be interested in participating in a clinical trial.”

Dr. Hordinsky provided this list of questions to help in evaluating these patients:

  • Is scalp hair loss the biggest problem? Eyebrow loss? Eyelash loss? Nail issues? All of these?
  • How bothersome is it to experience hair shedding every day? Does this make the patient depressed and anxious?

Dr. Hordinsky added that asking patients about the following topics can also be appropriate:

  • Hair care habits. Is the patient no longer shampooing because of hair loss?
  • Medications.
  • Symptoms, such as pain, itch, and burning.
  • Body hair. Does the patient feel there’s too little or too much?
  • Nail abnormalities.
  • Menstrual cycle and pregnancies.
  • Diet and supplements.
  • Family history. Patients – who are often very curious about the disease – often mention relatives when they hear about a genetic role in AA, she said. They’ll say “My aunt has rheumatoid arthritis” or “My cousin has autoimmune disease.”
  • Excess androgen levels and autoimmune/endocrine diseases.

The patient examination should include documentation of the presence of vellus hair or indeterminate and terminal fibers; the presence or absence of scale, erythema, folliculitis, and atrophy; eyebrow, eyelash, or body hair loss; and nail damage, such as pitting.

Photography and/or the SALT score may be used for documentation, she said. The SALT score is the only standardized method of assessment for AA, she said. The score is produced by a calculation that takes into account the amount of hair loss in the quadrants (right, left, front, back) of the scalp (J Am Acad Dermatol. 2018 Sep;79[3]:470-478.e3).

Laboratory tests are important, but there is no standard list, Dr. Hordinsky said. They are selected based on history and physical examination and can include thyroid function studies; heme and iron profiles, including serum ferritin and hemoglobin; and measurements of vitamin D, thiamine, zinc, and total protein. “We check nutrition labs particularly if a patient has been taking a lot of supplements, and we’re not sure where we’re at,” Dr. Hordinsky said.

Dermatologists may also order tests to measure non-cycle dependent hormones such as dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS), total/free testosterone, and antinuclear antibodies and other autoantibodies.

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Dr. Hordinsky disclosed consulting work with Procter & Gamble, Concert, and Cassiopea and grant/research support from Aclaris, National Alopecia Areata Foundation, Allergan.