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Dealing With Hair Loss in Women
Hair is an important part of our identity. Because of its significance, hair loss can be very traumatic for both men and women. Millions of women in the United States suffer from androgenetic alopecia, or female pattern hair loss. However, all is not hopeless for women who wish to confront their hair loss and take action to safely regain control of their appearance and self-esteem.
The Typical Cycle of Hair Growth (and Loss)
Hair grows in phases from its follicle (the skin surrounding the hair root) at an average rate of about ½ inch per month. Approximately 90% of the hair on your scalp is growing at any one time and is in a phase that lasts 2-6 years. The other 10% is in a resting phase, which lasts 2-3 months. After the resting phase, the hair strand falls out and a new one begins to grow. As a result, you lose roughly 100 hairs on any given day.
Female Pattern Hair Loss
Androgenic alopecia is the most common cause of excessive hair loss in both women and men. It occurs when hair falls out, but new hair does not grow in its place. The cause is not well understood, but it is associated with genetics from either your mother's or father's side of the family, aging, and levels of androgens. Androgens are homones generally associated with secondary sex characteristics in men.
The pattern of hair loss in women is different from the typical receding hairline and crown loss seen in men. In women, there is usually thinning of hair over the entire head or slight hair loss at the crown or hairline. It rarely progresses to total or near baldness.
Other Causes of Hair Loss
Hair loss can occur for other reasons as well, including:
- Telogen effluvium (temporary shedding of hair)—The hair follicles go into a resting stage at the same time. It usually follows a stressful event, such as childbirth.
- Breaking of hair —This may be caused by styling treatments, such as dyes, tints, bleaches, and straighteners, as well has twisting and pulling of hair.
- Alopecia areata —This is an autoimmune disorder in which affected hair follicles are mistakenly attacked by a person's own immune system, causing patchy areas of total hair loss.
- Thyroid disease—Both an overactive and underactive thyroid can cause hair loss. It can be reversed with proper treatment.
- Chemotherapy —Causes hair cells to stop dividing, become thin, and break off. Hair regrows after treatment ends.
- Tinea capitis —This is a treatable fungus infection on the scalp that can cause patchy hair loss.
- Medications—Taking certain medications can lead to hair loss, such as blood thinners, antidepressants, or blood pressure medications.
- Inadequate protein in diet—Although rare in the US, growing hairs will shift into the resting phase when you don’t get enough protein from your diet. The condition can be reversed and prevented by eating adequate amounts of protein.
- Low iron levels—Iron deficiency occasionally produces hair loss; it can be corrected by taking iron pills.
Is It Possible to Prevent Female Pattern Hair Loss?
There is no known way to prevent female pattern hair loss, but call your doctor if you think you may be balding. There may be a treatable medical cause for your hair loss, or it may be a matter of changing some of the medications you currently take. Your doctor can also give you medications to help alleviate symptoms, such as itching or irritated skin. You should not feel anxious, embarrassed, or unattractive because of hair loss.
Treatment for Female Pattern Hair Loss
The hair loss of female pattern hair loss is permanent. However, it is of cosmetic importance only and does not indicate a medical disorder. So, if you are comfortable with your appearance, no treatment is required. If you want to treat the condition, keep in mind that your insurance will most likely not cover medications or procedures for cosmetic purposes, but may if your hair loss is due to a disease.
Examples of treatment options include:
- Medication—Minoxidil is a medication that is available in the United States without a prescription. It is used topically on the scalp. The medication is usually applied to the scalp twice a day. It may take more than 4 months of use before you will see your hair regrow. Hair loss recurs if treatment is stopped.
- Hair replacement surgery—Hair transplants involve taking plugs of donor follicles from another person's scalp and using these to fill the hairline. The procedure usually requires multiple transplantation sessions. It can also cause minor scarring in the donor areas and carries a risk for skin infection. Results, however, are often very good and permanent.
- Nonsurgical hair additions—A nonsurgical hair addition is an external hair device, such as a weave, extension, or hair piece that is added to existing hair or the scalp to give the appearance of a fuller head of hair. They are safe. Many women may opt for partial transplantation and a partial hair addition.
Alopecia Areata Foundation
American Hair Loss Association
Androgenetic alopecia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated December 9, 2014. Accessed January 4, 2016.
Hair loss. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: http://www.aad.org/dermatology-a-to-z/diseases-and-treatments/e---h/hair-loss. Accessed January 4, 2016.
Hair loss. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/hair-loss.html. Updated March 2014. Accessed January 4, 2016.
Minoxidil (topical). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated December 8, 2015. Accessed January 4, 2016.
Price VH. Treatment of hair loss. N Engl J Med. 1999; 341:964-973.
Trost LB, Bergfeld WF, Calogeras E. The diagnosis and treatment of iron deficiency and its potential relationship to hair loss. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006; 54:824.
Women's hair loss. American American Hair Loss Council website. Available at: http://www.americanhairloss.org/women%5Fhair%5Floss. Accessed January 4, 2016.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 12/2015
- Update Date: 01/30/2014