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Why Do White Blood Cells Attack Hair Follicles? Auto-Immune Conditions And Hair Loss
Dr Mir Malkani (MBBS, MISHRS, FRCS)
Medically reviewed by
Dr Mir Malkani (MBBS, MISHRS, FRCS)
Written by Rebecca MuntonUpdated on July 22, 2022

There are many causes of hair loss. Although genetics is the biggest cause of hair loss, it can also be triggered by illness and disease. This typically stems from auto-immune diseases, which can cause white blood cells to attack your hair follicles, preventing them from producing hair.

In the UK, it’s estimated that at least 4 million people are living with at least 1 auto-immune disease [1]. Here’s a look at auto-immune diseases and some of those which have the ability to cause hair loss.

What is an auto-immune disease?

The body is protected by the immune system, a complicated set of organs and cells which include the bone marrow, spleen, thymus, white blood cells and lymph nodes.

The various organs and parts of the body which make up the immune system are specifically designed to be able to recognise and deal with invaders like viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens. Normally, they isolate and fight any foreign bodies voraciously.

However, when an auto-immune disease occurs, the body can’t tell the difference between its own healthy cells and invaders. This breakdown in the immune system can result in a wide range of symptoms, including hair loss.

What role do white blood cells play in auto-immune disease-related hair loss?

White blood cells (also known as leukocytes) are responsible for locating and fighting infection in your body. There are 5 types of white blood cells, each of which has a different role to play in helping your body fight disease. But they are all triggered to respond when the body detects foreign bodies like bacteria or germs. They surround and suppress the invading cells to defend your body from illness.

When a person has an auto-immune condition, white blood cells suppress healthy cells. This can be in specific organs, such as the skin (in psoriasis) or pancreas (in type 1 diabetes [2]). Certain conditions — such as alopecia — cause white blood cells to attack healthy hair follicles.

Let’s take a look at some of the auto-immune conditions you could be affected by.

Alopecia Areata

Alopecia areata is an auto-immune disease that specifically relates to hair loss. It’s caused by the hair follicles being attacked by the immune system [3].

When the hair follicles are attacked by the white blood cells, hair loss occurs in small round patches as the growth pattern in the follicle is directly interfered with. Despite this attack by the immune system, the hair follicles remain alive and have the potential to once again recover full functionality.

Alopecia Areata affects thousands of people in the UK and may attack other parts of the body too. When it affects the beard, the condition is known as alopecia barbae. Along with the typical patchiness seen on the hair on your head, the disease can also manifest in loss of facial hair, eyebrows and even eyelashes.

Lupus

A type of auto-immune disease that doesn’t primarily affect the hair follicles, lupus can therefore still have a very profound effect.

No-one knows exactly what causes lupus, but it often occurs within families, leading scientists to speculate that genetics may play a part [4]. A specific trigger then seems to set the disease process off, with a number of problems arising right across the body.

Some of the symptoms lupus can cause include fatigue, painful joints, headache, lethargy, anaemia and clotting, along with hair loss.

Lupus is often dubbed the “great imitator” because the symptoms which arise are common and can be attributed to a number of different conditions.

Hashimoto’s Disease

Also referred to as chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, Hashimoto’s disease involves the immune system cells attacking the thyroid gland [5].

The thyroid gland is responsible for regulating a number of activities within the body and damage to it can cause widespread symptoms. Being attacked causes inflammation, which impairs its ability to function, causing an underactive thyroid gland.

The disease has a slow progression initially producing few, if any, symptoms but as the level of thyroid hormones in the blood starts to drop, problems start to become noticeable. Sluggishness and fatigue are the first symptoms typically noticed, and then sensitivity to the cold, unexplained weight gain, a puffy face, muscle aches and a hoarse voice occur, in addition to hair loss.

Why do white blood cells attack hair follicles?

Doctors still don’t know definitively what causes white blood cells to attack hair follicles, but there are many theories:

  • Genetics — conditions like Lupus often run in families, so you may be genetically predisposed to certain auto-immune disorders
  • Accidental targeting — sometimes healthy cells are caught up in an immune response to real infections, causing damage to peripheral cells [6]
  • Diet — it’s been suggested that Western diets, which are high in fat and sugar, may be responsible for some auto-immune diseases [7]
  • Hygiene hypothesis — lack of exposure to germs thanks to improve hygiene and vaccines has led to more auto-immune conditions and allergies [8]

None of these have yet been definitely proven, and since there are more than 80 auto-immune conditions, it’s likely that there are a range of contributing factors. Nonetheless, if you’re worried you may be suffering from an auto-immune condition, it’s important to see a doctor so they can help diagnose your condition and help you manage your symptoms.

Is your hair loss related to an auto-immune disease?

Many auto-immune diseases have symptoms which can mimic other conditions, so it’s important not to panic if you suffer from hair loss. The cause can be far simpler, or even just caused by stress. Nevertheless if you experience hair loss, you should be seen by a professional, to rule out any underlying cause as well as offering a potential treatment for the hair loss.

Book a free consultation with a trichologist for an expert medical examination to establish the cause of your hair loss.

Sources:

  1. Are you #AutoimmuneAware?
  2. Autoimmune Diseases: Types, Symptoms, Causes, and More
  3. What’s to know about alopecia areata?
  4. Everything You Need to Know About Lupus
  5. Hashimoto Thyroiditis
  6. Autoimmune Disease: Why Is My Immune System Attacking Itself?
  7. Role of “Western Diet” in Inflammatory Autoimmune Diseases
  8. The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update

Image Credits; Bibi Ellis and Mary Mbwizhu

Dr Mir Malkani (MBBS, MISHRS, FRCS)
Written by Rebecca Munton
Medically reviewed by Dr Mir Malkani (MBBS, MISHRS, FRCS)Updated on July 22, 2022
The Wimpole Clinic offers FUE Hair, Beard & Eyebrow Transplants & Trichology.
Talk to a specialist ☎ 020 7935 1861.
Dr Mir Malkani (MBBS, MISHRS, FRCS)
Medically reviewed by
Dr Mir Malkani (MBBS, MISHRS, FRCS)
Written by Rebecca MuntonUpdated on July 22, 2022

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