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Hair loss: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read
Man in blue denim shirt on sofa, holding mirror, examining thinning hair.

Hair loss treatments can help both men and women. Our hair is an integral part of our identity, so losing it can cause lack of confidence, and contribute to mental health conditions such as anxiety, and depression.

Everyone naturally sheds around 100 hairs a day, but in some people they are not replaced by new growth.

This is the condition GPs refer to as alopecia and there are many different types, each with its own symptoms and causes.

Hair loss treatment for male pattern baldness

The most common form of alopecia is male pattern baldness, or androgenetic alopecia, which is hereditary and affects up to 50% of men by their 50s.

Most common in men, male pattern baldness also affects some women and is usually more noticeable after a woman has been through the menopause.

Many people with pattern baldness do not seek treatment, particularly men, as it’s a condition of ageing.

However, there are non-prescription and prescription hair loss treatments available.

Alopecia areata

Another form of hair loss is alopecia areata, which is not hereditary but caused by a problem relating to the immune system.

This can be more common in people with thyroid conditions, diabetes and Down’s syndrome, and affects about two in 1,000 people each year.

It causes patches of baldness about the size of a coin to form on the head or body.

Some people develop more severe symptoms, with hair missing from their entire scalp and/or body.

Alopecia areata mostly affects teenagers and young adults. Whilst distressing, hair usually grows back within a few months.

Initially white and fine, it will return to normal thickness and colour over time.

With alopecia areata, there are no completely effective treatments and many people use the ‘watch and wait’ technique.

However, your GP can prescribe corticosteroid (steroid) lotions, which depress the immune system and stop it attacking hair follicles.

Immunotherapy has also been used, especially for those with all-over hair loss. Chemical creams are applied regularly at specialist centres – but side effects can include a severe skin reaction.

Scarring alopecia

Scarring alopecia, also known as cicatricial, is caused by other diseases and happens when hair follicles are destroyed. It accounts for about seven per cent of all hair loss cases.

Telogen effluvium

Another form of alopecia is telogen effluvium. It is characterised by widespread thinning of the hair, rather than bald patches. Causes include stress, illness, medical treatments, crash dieting, some medications, and hormonal changes.

Many people with extensive hair loss choose to wear a wig, either of acrylic or human hair; both have their pros and cons.

Hair transplants and scalp surgery

In cases of male or female pattern baldness, hair transplants and scalp surgery can be considered. They are not available on the NHS and need to be carried out at a specialist, private clinic. Any scalp surgery is invasive, expensive, and can take a long time.

Your GP can refer you for counselling if hair loss is causing stress and anxiety, and help is also available from the charity Alopecia UK.