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Sarah van Dijk was putting her curly hair up for a night out when she first noticed a bald spot by her left ear.
The 32-year-old had just moved to Christchurch and, four weeks earlier, experienced major earthquakes for the first time - the December 2011 magnitude 5.8 and 6.0 aftershocks.
Inspecting the rest of her scalp, she found about half a dozen bald patches developing. "I had no idea what was going on. I was hoping it was something like ringworm because I'm an early childhood teacher."
However, the next day a doctor told her she had alopecia areata.
Van Dijk, now 33, is among a growing number of Cantabrians suffering from the stress-related hair loss condition, which may be attributable to the quakes.
"This is the first time I've experienced alopecia, and it was after the first time I'd experienced earthquakes," she said.
Initially, losing her hair was "really hard". She did not leave the house in the first fortnight, and if she tried to talk about it she would burst into tears.
Van Dijk tried cortisone injections and starting eating gluten free, but her hair kept falling out.
Eventually, she decided to take control. Her partner Silas - "supportive right from the beginning" - shaved her hair off last June, and this week she was fitted for her first wig - so she can go out in the evenings and "blend in".
"I've had the sympathetic looks. What will be will be. You can't be miserable your whole life. I might just have to have a lot of fun with wigs."
Government-approved wig provider Janine Antram said there had been such a surge in demand for wigs from alopecia sufferers in Canterbury, including children as young as 9, that she was considering moving her North Island business to Christchurch. "It must have something to do with people being on edge," she said.
With alopecia, hair can fall out in patches or some may experience all-over-body hair loss.
Christchurch dermatologist David Hepburn said there was no specific diagnosis for alopecia. Shock hair loss could be brought on by a significant psychological trauma, physical illness, operation or even child birth.
Hepburn said he had not noticed an increase in alopecia patients since the quakes, but Van Dijk said her own dermatologist had.
Her advice to someone developing alopecia: "People will be supportive. Your hair is not going to change the way your friends and family feel about the way you are."
To raise awareness, Alopecia Aotearoa is organising New Zealand's first alopecia conference, which will be held in Hamilton on October 26.
Ministry of Health figures show in the year after the September 2010 earthquake, there was a more than 300 per cent increase in demand for hairpieces, hairwear or wigs from Cantabrians suffering hair loss compared with the year before, from 83 to 253. And demand is still climbing. The following year there were 272 requests, and since last September there have been about 23 requests a month.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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