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Hair Loss (Alopecia) Overview

Hair loss, also known as alopecia, is a condition that primarily affects the scalp but can affect the entire body. Hereditary hair loss is the most common type and can lead to severe hair loss (baldness). Excessive hair loss may be due to individual or a combination of factors, such as scalp disease, hormonal changes, or medical conditions. Alopecia is more common in men than women.

Many people experiencing hair loss prefer to abstain from treatment and allow hair loss to run its course. Others may use makeup, hats, scarves, or wigs to cover up their condition. Many hair loss treatments are offered on the market, but not all treatment options are effective. Side effects are also common for hair loss medications, so it is important to be knowledgeable before choosing a treatment. Always discuss with your doctor before beginning any hair loss treatment.

Signs & Symptoms of Hair Loss

While it is fairly straightforward to observe if you are losing hair, hair loss can progress in different ways. Some scalp conditions cause acute hair loss that occurs suddenly. Other hair loss conditions can cause gradual balding. Below are some of the more common ways that hair loss occurs:

Circular and patchy balding. Hair loss may occur as patchy bald spots on the scalp, eyebrows, or beard. This type of hair loss is usually accompanied by itchiness, or even pain, before the hair falls out.

Sudden loosening. Your hair can loosen suddenly after a physical or emotional shock. Sudden loosening of hair will cause hair to come out in handfuls. This may occur when you are combing, washing, or gently tugging your hair. Hair that suddenly loosens usually indicate a temporary condition. However, this symptom can cause your hair to be thinner overall.

Full-body hair loss. Certain medical treatments and health conditions can cause body-wide hair loss. Chemotherapy is one treatment that can lead to this symptom. This kind of hair loss typically grows back after the treatment has ended.

Scalp-wide scaling. If you have a skin condition known as ringworm, you may experience patches of scales that spread over the scalp. This symptom also involves swelling, redness, oozing, and broken hair.

Gradual thinning at the top of the head. This is the most common type of hair loss and tends to affect people as they grow older. Gradual hair loss usually begins as a receding forehead hairline.

Causes of Hair Loss

A healthy person loses around 50 to 100 hairs a day. Because new hair is constantly growing, this isn’t noticeable. If new hair growth doesn’t keep up with the rate at which hair falls out, hair loss occurs. Hair loss can be caused by one of the following factors:

Excessive hair styling. Some hairstyles (like pigtails or cornrows) pull your hair very tightly. These hairstyles may look great, but they aren’t so great for your scalp. Pulling your hair too tightly for extended periods can lead to traction alopecia—hair loss due to pulling. Certain treatments, like hot-oil hair treatment, can also lead to hair loss. Essentially, any sort of styling that can lead to scarring can result in permanent hair loss.

Hormonal changes. Hormone changes that occur during pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, or because of thyroid disease can lead to temporary and permanent hair loss.

Medical conditions. Skin infections like ringworm can lead to hair loss, as can the hair-pulling disorder trichotillomania. Another medical condition known to cause balding is alopecia areata, an immune system-related disease characterized by patchy hair loss.

Family history. Some of the most common types of hair loss are male- and female-pattern baldness. Also known as androgenic alopecia, these two kinds of hair loss are hereditary and usually develop later in life. Androgenic alopecia tends to develop gradually and is distinguishable by a receding hairline, thinning hair along the crown of the head, and bald spots.

Radiation therapy. If you undergo radiation therapy to the head area, your hair may not grow as it once did. Radiation to your head may cause you to lose hair, including your eyebrows and eyelashes.

How to Prevent Hair Loss

Hair loss due to hereditary factors may not be preventable. However, there are several steps you can take to prevent other types of hair loss. Here are some helpful tips for protecting your hair and improving your scalp health.

Always be gentle. Try to avoid being too harsh when you brush, comb, or wash your hair. Avoid tugging and use a detangler to resolve any knots, especially when your hair is damp. Steer clear of harsh treatments like curling irons, hot rollers, and hot-oil treatments whenever possible, and limit tension on your hair by only wearing braids and other styles that pull your hair once in a while.

Protect against sunlight. Too much exposure to the ultraviolet light from the sun can damage the hair and lead to hair loss. Wear hats when you are under strong sunlight and avoid exposure to ultraviolet light as much as you can.

Quit smoking. Studies show that smoking is associated with balding in men. This is likely due to smoking affecting the arteries under your scalp, decreasing blood flow which in turn limits oxygen and nutrients to your hair. Smoking also causes a host of other dangerous health problems, so ask your doctor about quitting if you smoke.

Cooling cap. If you are undergoing chemotherapy, ask your doctor to wear a cooling cap. A cooling cap can reduce your risk of hair loss.

For more information on the different types of hair loss, talk to your doctor. Your healthcare provider can let you know which hair loss treatment is right for you. They can also educate you concerning the side effects of popular hair loss medications so that you can make an informed choice. Your doctor can also determine if your hair loss is a sign of an underlying health condition.