If there is one part of my body I wouldn’t change, it’s my hair. I love the thickness, the length, the color — you should have seen the look I gave a hairdresser once for suggesting dying sections of it blonde. No, thank you! Even the occasional gray hair can’t burst my bubble. I love these locks.
That’s why I was a bit concerned last fall when I started noticing heavier-than-normal hair loss. At the time, I was on the mend after a surgical procedure, so I asked my nurse. She explained that hair loss can be a side effect of the anesthesia. Interesting, right?
I set up some time to chat with Vani Duvuuri, MD, board-certified endocrinologist on the medical staff at Methodist Richardson Medical Center, to learn what else might cause hair loss.
“When we see patients with hair loss, the first thing we ask is if they have an underlying condition,” Dr. Duvuuri says. “We’ll also ask about recent surgeries, medical history, medication, and dietary habits. Then the next step is a physical examination. You can learn a lot from where hair loss is taking place, the condition of the skin, and even the shape of the hair follicle.”
Dr. Duvuuri explained that the root cause of someone’s hair loss can vary from the predictable (aging and genetics) to the surprising (the way you style your hair). Here are four causes of hair loss I found interesting, along with what you and your doctor can do to treat them.
Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and thyroid disease are examples of autoimmune diseases, which involve the body’s immune system attacking healthy cells. When antibodies attack hair cells, it causes inflammation and destruction of the follicle.
“A sign we look for is hair follicles shaped like exclamation points — a club-shaped root and shaft that is thinner toward the base,” Dr. Duvuuri says.
Treatment: While there are treatments available to help with the hair loss, none can reverse the underlying disease. For patients with patches of hair loss on the scalp (alopecia areata), a topical foam (minoxidil) and steroid injections into the affected parts of the scalp can help with hair growth. For patients who are completely bald (alopecia totalis), oral steroids and topical immunotherapy (cyclosporine) may help.
“Studies have also shown that ultraviolet treatments can improve hair growth in patients with autoimmune diseases,” Dr. Duvuuri says.
Nutrient and hormone deficiencies
The backstory here is that your hair has two shifts: the growing phase and the resting, or telogen, phase. Sufficient nutrition and hormones are needed for both. For example, iron supplies oxygen to cells. If your hair cells don’t get enough oxygen, it stunts their growth. The vitamins and hormones also sustain hairs during the telogen phase.
“If there aren’t enough vitamins and hormones getting to your hair, you will lose hairs faster,” Dr. Duvuuri says. “Usually you lose less than 100 hairs a day, but if there’s a vitamin deficiency or abnormal hormone levels, you can lose 30 to 50 percent of your hair.”
Treatment: This kind of hair loss is completely reversible. Talk with your physician to make sure your diet is balanced and that you’re getting sufficient vitamins and minerals. Medication can also help correct hormone imbalances.
Tinea capitis, or ringworm of the scalp, is a highly contagious fungal infection most commonly seen in children in the United States. It appears as itchy, scaly patches on the scalp, but a skin culture confirms if the cactus-shaped fungi are present. Other symptoms include arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and enlarged lymph nodes.
Treatment: Oral antifungal medications cure the condition within two to four weeks. Topical shampoos are also sometimes prescribed.
Your beauty regimen
If you wear wicks-type braids or curl your hair with hot rollers, you might be at risk for traction alopecia. These devices pull on the hair, adding stress to the hair follicle. The hair loss usually occurs in the frontal temporal area in these patients.
“In rare circumstances, chronic traction can set in motion a process called folliculitis, a scarring that can result in permanent hair loss to the affected area,” Dr. Duvuuri says.
There’s help for hair loss
Menopause, infections, surgery, medication, aging, and other factors can all affect your hair growth and loss.
“If you notice any changes, talk to your primary care doctor,” Dr. Duvuuri says. “He or she can evaluate you to see what kind of hair loss you’re experiencing and often start treatments.
“The important thing to remember is that while hair loss is common, it’s not necessarily something you have to settle for,” she adds. “In many cases, hair loss is preventable or reversible. Just be sure to have the conversation with your doctor.”