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What is alopecia areata? Why Chris Rock's joke about Jada Pinkett Smith struck a nerve

Jada shaved her head after going public about her struggles with alopecia, a condition caused when the immune system gets out of whack and attacks hair follicles.
Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Jada Pinkett Smith, left, and Will Smith appear in the audience at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

LOS ANGELES — Losing your hair is no laughing matter, especially when it's caused by a health issue you can't control. 

One of those conditions is called alopecia areata, an auto-immune disorder that can cause serious hair loss in adults and children. 

Alopecia is the reason behind actress Jada Pinkett Smith's bald look. And the reason husband Will Smith wasn't amused when comedian Chris Rock made a joke at her expense at the Oscars Sunday night. 

Will marched up to the stage and smacked Rock across the face.

RELATED: Will Smith hits Chris Rock on Oscars stage after joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith

"Leave my wife's name out of your f--king mouth," Will shouted when he returned to his seat.

Alopecia was 'terrifying'

Jada shaved her head in 2021 after going public with her struggle with alopecia, a condition caused when the immune system gets out of whack and attacks hair follicles.

She rocked the clean-shaven look at the Oscars Sunday night, but getting to the place she could publicly embrace her condition hasn't been an easy journey.

Jada first revealed her diagnosis in 2018 on her Red Table Talk with her mom and daughter Willow, according to CNN.

She said it was "terrifying" when her hair started falling out in clumps. 

"It was one of those times in my life where I was literally shaking with fear," she said. "That's why I cut my hair and continued to cut it."

It's not clear if comedian Chris Rock knew about Jada's alopecia when he made a "G.I Jane" joke. He later declined to press charges against Smith who won the best actor Oscar for "King Richard."  

How do you know if you have alopecia?

It's normal to lose about 50 to 100 hairs a day, but for most people, new hair is growing in at the same time to replace it, according to Memorial Hermann in Houston.

“Hair is in a constant recycling, with growth, resting and shedding,” said Dr. Christopher Levert with Memorial Hermann Medical Group.

While baldness -- or alopecia -- is more common in men, about a third of women will have hair loss, according to Harvard Medical School. 

Common causes of hair loss include:

  • Family history or heredity
  • Hormonal changes
  • Medicines or supplements
  • Trauma to the body caused by surgery or childbirth
  • Stress
  • Smoking
  • Poor nutrition
  • Hairstyles and treatments

Alopecia areata causes patchy baldness anywhere on the body, including the scalp, beard, eyebrows, eyelashes, armpits, nose or ears. In rare cases, people lose all of the hair on their body. 

"For the most part, this is something that’s completely out of your control," Dr. Levert said. "Sometimes there’s a social stigma to not having hair or losing hair. Is this person seriously ill? Is this person undergoing really invasive treatments or therapies?"

A study by Harvard showed Black and Hispanic women in the U.S. have a much greater chance of developing alopecia areata. 

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley is another public figure who has spoken openly about alopecia. The Massachusetts Democrat said she felt compelled to go public to free herself of the shame of her condition and provide true transparency to all the people empowered by her hair style, AP reported in 2020.

“I felt naked, exposed, vulnerable. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I felt betrayed,” Pressley said. “And then I also felt that I was participating in a cultural betrayal because of all the little girls who write me letters, come up to me, take selfies with me. Hashtag twist nation.”

WATCH: Rep. Ayanna Pressley on battle with alopecia (aired in 2020)

Symptoms and causes of alopecia areata

The National Alopecia Areata Association says the condition affects about 2% of the population, or as many as almost 7 million Americans, according to AP.

About 65% of patients experience their first episode of alopecia areata before the age of 16, according to Texas Children's Hospital.

It can be genetic, but can also be triggered by stress or thyroid issues, TCH says.

Contact your doctor if you notice these symptoms.

  • Sudden dramatic and patchy hair loss anywhere on the body
  • Hair coming out in clumps when you wash it, brush it or gently pull it
  • Some will have burning or stinging before sudden hair loss 
  • About 20% of people who have alopecia areata, also report changes in their nails, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. This can include red or brittle nails, ridges and roughness.

There's no known cure for this autoimmune disorder, but there are treatments available.

“We have many treatments to help with hair loss. The sooner they are used, the more successful they’ll generally be,” Dr. Levert said.

Sudden hair loss can also be a sign of other health conditions so see your doctor if it happens to you.

Help for adults, children with alopecia 

These are some of the resources are available for people with alopecia. The organizations are dedicated to raising awareness and offering support.

 Locks of Love: The non-profit provides quality hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children. 

Children’s Alopecia Project (CAP)

National Alopecia Areata Foundation

VERIFY: Why do people go bald (originally aired in 2019)

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