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Hair Loss and Balding: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Hair loss is typically considered the domain of aging men, but this equal-opportunity condition — which has many causes — can affect virtually anyone.

Everyone sheds about 100 hairs each day as part of the normal hair growth cycle, but excess loss is usually a distressing development. Americans spend more than $3.5 billion each year trying to treat it, according to the American Hair Loss Association.

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Credit: Baldness photo via Shutterstock

Symptoms & Causes

Most people’s hair grows about a half-inch per month, and about 90 percent of your hair is actively growing at any given time, with the other 10 percent in dormant phase. After two or three months, this dormant hair falls out and its follicles begin growing new hair as other follicles begin a dormant phase.

Alopecia, the medical term for hair loss, doesn’t only happen on the scalp. Some illnesses and medications can trigger balding over the entire body, though genetics account for 95 percent of all cases on the head, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Aside from heredity, noticeable hair loss can be caused by wide variety of factors, including:

  • Harsh hairstyles or treatments: Hairstyles that consistently use rubber bands, rollers or barrettes, or pull hair into tight styles such as cornrows, can inflame and scar hair follicles. So can incorrectly-used chemical products such as dyes, bleaches, straighteners or permanent wave solutions. Depending on the degree of damage, resulting hair loss can be permanent.
  • Hormone imbalances: In women, hormonal shifts from birth control pills, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause or hysterectomy can induce more hair follicles than normal to enter the dormant phase.
  • Illness or surgery: The stress from sickness or surgery may prompt the body to temporarily cease nonessential tasks such as hair production. Specific conditions can also trigger it, including thyroid disorders, syphilis, iron deficiency, lupus or severe infection. An autoimmune condition called alopecia areata, which has no cure, causes rapid body-wide hair loss.
  • Medications and vitamins: Cancer chemotherapy, which attacks hair follicles in its attempt to kill all fast-growing cells around the body, is a well-known reason for hair loss. Other medications’ side effects include hair shedding as well, such as some that treat high blood pressure and gout (a painful joint condition caused by a buildup of uric acid). Excessive levels of vitamin A also contribute.
  • Nutritional deficits: Heavy dieting or eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia can temporarily stun hair follicles to cease growth. This can also occur from insufficient protein, vitamin or mineral intake.
  • Aging: A natural effect of growing older is slowed hair growth.

 

Treatments & Medications

Hair loss remedies range from the mild to the extreme and the inexpensive to the costly. Much depends on how much hair is gone and how high a priority it is to mask its absence or replace it.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, treatments include:

  • Hair weaves or wigs: Typically expensive, wigs and hair weaves either completely cover the head or add to existing hair, restoring the appearance of a full head of hair. They are especially practical for cancer patients and those whose hair loss is temporary.
  • Topical creams and lotions: Over-the-counter minoxidil (also known as the brain name Rogaine) can restore some hair growth, especially in those with hereditary hair loss. It is applied directly to the scalp. Prescription-strength finasteride (Propecia) comes in pill form and is only for men. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, it may take up to six months to tell if these medications are working.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications: Prescription steroid-based creams or injections can calm follicles damaged or inflamed by harsh chemicals or excessive pulling.
  • Surgery: Men tend to be better candidates for surgical hair-replacement techniques because their hair loss is often limited to one or two areas of the scalp. Procedures include grafting, which transplants from one to 15 hairs per disc-shaped graft to other locations. Scalp reduction removes bald skin from the scalp so hair-covered scalp can be stretched to fill in the bald areas. Side effects include swelling, bruising and headaches.

Natural/Alternative Therapies

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, alternative therapies may not help hair regrow and many are not supported by medical research. However, other treatments that reportedly improve alopecia areata include Chinese herbs, acupuncture, zinc and vitamin supplements, evening primrose oil and aroma therapy. The NIAMSD recommends discussing any alternative treatments with physicians before use.

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