Alopecia - the root of the problem

Hundreds of private cosmetic clinics around the country can attest to the fact that women are fed up with getting wrinkles and men with losing their hair. But Botox® is no longer an exclusively female preserve, and alopecia, the medical name for hair loss, affects a surprising number of women.

Hundreds of private cosmetic clinics around the country can attest to the fact that women are fed up with getting wrinkles and men with losing their hair. But Botox® is no longer an exclusively female preserve, and alopecia, the medical name for hair loss, affects a surprising number of women. Fortunately, although it can be very distressing, it is rarely a sign of any serious underlying condition, and often grows back.

Help - my hairbrush is full of hair!

I have lots of patients who come in worrying that they seem to be shedding lots of hair when they brush their hair. Even if their hair doesn't look thinner, they worry, quite understandably, that it will get worse. It's lovely to be able to reassure them. Your hair naturally goes through different phases - usually about 85% of it is in the growing phase, which lasts three to five years, but a small proportion is always in the 'telogen' or resting phase. This phase lasts about three months before the hair follicle starts producing a new hair and the old one falls out. However, some people have times when lots of this hair is in this resting phase and falls out over a short period. The good news is that this is a sign that, far from going bald, you have lots of glossy new hair on the way.

Thinning hair

The quality of your hair, like the quality of your skin, changes over time. Your hair is likely to become finer and drier, and may also become generally thinner. A tendency to thinning hair with age often runs in families on your mother's side. Although this kind of hair thinning is natural and can't be reversed, it doesn't mean that you will lose all your hair, or even patches of it. It is worth talking to your GP, since an underactive thyroid gland or anaemia could be to blame.

Interestingly, some experts believe that even if you're not anaemic, having slightly low iron levels in your blood can increase your risk of thinning hair. (ref 1) Iron deficiency is probably the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, and particularly likely if you're a woman who suffers from heavy periods. Your GP can test your iron levels with a simple blood sample.

Alopecia areata

This is where you lose circular patches of hair. It affects about one in 300 women over a lifetime, and can run in families or be linked to thyroid conditions, diabetes or stress. It starts most commonly between the ages of 15 and 30. Fortunately, more than 9 out of 10 sufferers only have one or two patches. What is more, the problem usually settles on its own within a few months. It's rare to lose all the hair on your scalp, as some celebrities like Gail Porter have. If you have more widespread patches, talk to your GP about referral to a dermatologist (skin specialist).

Male pattern baldness

Women do tend to get hair thinning over the crown after the menopause - some studies suggest up to half of women are affected to some extent. Fortunately, they don't tend to get the same receding pattern as men. If your symptoms are very troublesome, a topical solution called minoxidil (at 2% strength for women) applied to the scalp twice daily, may help. You can't get it on the NHS but your GP can give you a private prescription.

When fashion and obsession cause hair loss

Rarely (and usually in children or adolescents) hair loss can be due to compulsive pulling out of hair. It may be subconscious - your child may wrap a finger round their hair and tug when they are concentrating. This condition is called trichotillomania and can affect eyebrows and eyelashes as well as hair. It's often linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (people with OCD may need to wash, clean or check locks obsessively, even though they know it isn't logical). It's treated in the same way as OCD, with a kind of talking therapy called behaviour modification therapy.

Girls who wear their hair pulled up tightly, such as in braids, can also suffer from hair loss called traction alopecia, which usually affects the hair above the forehead. It's important to stop wearing these styles before the hair follicles are damaged.

References:

1) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16635664

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.