People who notice their hair shedding in large amounts after combing or brushing, or whose hair becomes thinner or falls out, should consult a dermatologist. With correct diagnosis, many people with hair loss can be helped.
Hair has been called our “crowning glory.” Society has placed a great deal of social and cultural importance on hair and hairstyles. Unfortunately, many conditions, diseases, and improper hair care result in excessive hair loss.
Dermatologists, physicians who specialize in treating diseases of the hair and skin, will evaluate a patient’s hair problem by asking questions about diet, medications including vitamins and health food taken in the last six months, family history of hair loss, recent illness, and hair care habits. Hormonal effects may be evaluated in women by asking about menstrual cycles, pregnancies, and menopause. After examining the scalp and hair, the dermatologist may check a few hairs under the microscope. Sometimes blood tests or a scalp biopsy may be required for an accurate diagnosis. It’s important to find the cause and whether or not the problem will respond to medical treatment.
Normal Hair Growth
About 90 percent of the hair on a person’s scalp is growing at any one time. The growth phase lasts between two and six years. Ten percent of the hair is in a resting phase that lasts two to three months. At the end of its resting stage, the hair is shed. When a hair is shed, a new hair from the same follicle replaces it and the growing cycle starts again. Scalp hair grows about one-half inch a month. As people age, their rate of hair growth slows. Natural blondes typically have more hair (140,000 hairs) than brunettes (105,000 hairs) or redheads (90,000 hairs). Most hair shedding is due to the normal hair cycle, and losing 50-to-100 hairs per day is no cause for alarm. However, if you are concerned about excessive hair loss or dramatic thinning, consult your dermatologist.
Causes of Excessive Hair Loss
Improper Hair Cosmetic Use/Improper Hair Care – Many men and women use chemical treatments on their hair, including dyes, tints, bleaches, straighteners, and permanent waves. These treatments rarely damage hair if they are done correctly. However, the hair can become weak and break if any of these chemicals are used too often. Hair can also break if the solution is left on too long, if two procedures are done on the same day, or if bleach is applied to previously bleached hair. If hair becomes brittle from chemical treatments, it’s best to stop until the hair has grown out.
Hairstyles that pull on the hair, like ponytails and braids, should not be pulled tightly and should be alternated with looser hairstyles. The constant pull causes some hair loss, especially along the sides of the scalp.
Shampooing, combing and brushing too often, can also damage hair, causing it to break. Using a cream rinse or conditioner after shampooing will make it more manageable and easier to comb. When hair is wet, it is more fragile, so vigorous rubbing with a towel, and rough combing and brushing should be avoided. Don’t follow the old rule of 100 brush strokes a day – that damages hair. Instead, use wide toothed combs and brushes with smooth tips.
Hereditary Thinning or Balding – Hereditary balding or thinning is the most common cause of hair loss. The tendency can be inherited from either the mother’s or father’s side of the family. Women with this trait develop thinning hair, but do not become completely bald. The condition is called androgentic alopecia and it can start in the teens, twenties, or thirties. There is no cure, although medical treatments have recently become available that may help some people. One treatment involves applying a lotion, minoxidil, to the scalp twice a day. Another treatment for men is a daily pill containing finasteride, a drug that blocks the formation of the active male hormone in the hair follicle.
When confronted with thinning hair or baldness, men and some women consider hair transplantation, which is a permanent form of hair replacement. Anyone who has suffered permanent hair loss may be a candidate for hair transplantation. The procedure of hair transplantation involves moving some hair from hair-bearing portions (donor sites) of the head to bald or thinning portions (recipient sites) and/or removing bald skin. Because the procedure involves surgery as well as time and money, they should not be undertaken lightly.
Your dermatologist will help decide which method or combination of methods is right for you.
Alopecia Areata – In this type of hair loss, hair usually falls out, resulting in totally smooth, round patches about the size of a coin or larger. It can, though rare, result in complete loss of scalp and body hair. This disease may affect children or adults of any age.
The cause of alopecia areata is unknown. Apart from the hair loss, affected persons are generally in excellent health. In most cases, the hair regrows by itself. Dermatologists can treat many people with this condition. Treatments include topical medications, a special kind of light treatment, or in some cases pills.
Childbirth – When a woman is pregnant, more of her hairs will be growing. However, after a woman delivers her baby, many hairs enter the resting phase of the hair cycle. Within two to three months, some women will notice large amounts of hair coming out in their brushes and combs. This can last one to six months, but resolves completely in most cases.
High Fever, Severe Infection, Severe Flu – Illnesses may cause hairs to enter the resting phase. Four weeks to three months after a high fever, severe illness, or infection, a person may be shocked to see a lot of hair falling out. This shedding usually corrects itself.
Thyroid Disease – Both an over-active thyroid and an under-active thyroid can cause hair loss. Your physician can diagnosis thyroid disease with laboratory tests. Hair loss associated with thyroid disease can be reversed with proper treatment.
Inadequate Protein in Diet – Some people who go on crash diets that are low in protein, or have severely abnormal eating habits, may develop protein malnutrition. The body will save protein by shifting growing hairs into the resting phase. Massive hair shedding can occur two to three months later. Hair can then be pulled out by the roots fairly easily. This condition can be reversed and prevented by eating the proper amount of protein and, when dieting, maintaining adequate protein intake.
Medications – Some prescription drugs may cause temporary hair shedding. Examples include some of the medicines used for the following: gout, arthritis, depression, heart problems, high blood pressure, or blood thinner. High doses of vitamin A may also cause hair shedding.
Cancer Treatments – Some cancer treatments will cause hair cells to stop dividing. Hairs become thin and break off as they exit the scalp. This occurs one to three weeks after the treatment. Patients can lose up to 90 percent of their scalp hair. The hair will regrow after treatment ends. Patients may want to get wigs before treatment.
Birth Control Pills – Women who lose hair while taking birth control pills usually have an inherited tendency for hair thinning. If hair thinning occurs, a woman can consult her gynecologist about switching to another birth control pill. When a woman stops using oral contraceptives, she may notice that her hair begins shedding two or three months later. This may continue for six months when it usually stops. This is similar to hair loss after the birth of a child.
Low Serum Iron – Iron deficiency occasionally produces hair loss. Some people don’t have enough iron in their diets or may not fully absorb iron. Women who have heavy menstrual periods may develop iron deficiency. Low iron can be detected by laboratory tests and can be corrected by taking iron pills.
Major Surgery/Chronic Illness – Anyone who has a major operation may notice increased hair shedding within one to three months afterwards. The condition reverses itself within a few months but people who have a severe chronic illness may shed hair indefinitely.
Fungus Infection (Ringworm) of the Scalp – Caused by a fungus infection, ringworm (which has nothing to do with worms) begins with small patches of scaling that can spread and result in broken hair, redness, swelling, and even oozing. This contagious disease is most common in children, and oral medication will cure it.
Hair Pulling (Trichotillomania) – Children and sometimes adults will twist or pull their hair, brows, or lashes until they come out. In children especially, this is often just a bad habit that gets better when the harmful effects of that habit are explained. Sometimes hair pulling can be a coping response to unpleasant stresses and occasionally is a sign of a serious problem needing the help of a mental health professional.
See your dermatologist – Excess hair loss can have many different causes. Hair will regrow spontaneously in some forms of hair loss. Other forms can be treated successfully by a dermatologist. For the several forms of hair loss for which there is no cure at present, there is research in progress that holds promise for the future.