When Unwanted Hair Means a Medical Problem

May 7th, 2015
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Hair Growth May Indicate a Medical ProblemWe talk a lot here about unwanted hair and removing it, but truthfully, when we're talking about unwanted hair, we're talking about naturally occurring growth that we simply find annoying and want to be rid of.

The thing with unwanted hair though is that sometimes it indicates a medical problem such as an illness, a disorder, or a side effect of medication. If hair growth is a side effect of certain medications, you'll know it's coming. Your doctor will tell you that the cyclosporin (an immunosuppressant) may make your hair thicker than usual, or that your contraceptive pill may give you some temporary hair growth.

It's the unexpected hair growth that may indicate a medical problem that should be addressed.

A while ago, we talked about lanugo, the downy fuzz we all develop in the womb. Although we typically lose it at around 7 or 8 months gestation, sometimes some remains at birth, and falls out in a matter of days or weeks, replaced by vellus hair. There are cases when lanugo appears later in life, and this is a cause for concern. Your teenaged niece who has become terribly thin and is suddenly sporting down on her arms, shoulders, and maybe even her face? It's probably a good idea to take her Mom and Dad aside and ask if she's been to the doctor lately. Sprouting downy hair after babyhood is a pretty good indicator of a medical problem like malnutrition, usually brought on by anorexia. (It may also be indicative of hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid. Either way, ask her folks to have her checked out.)

Liz Lemon cracks wise about her “Tom Selleck”, but hypertrichosis – excessive hairiness – can also be an indicator of other medical problems. Cushing's Disease, an adrenal disorder, often manifests first as thicker hair growth on the face or body where hair wasn't as dense before. Similarly, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a common cause of sudden and excessive hair growth on the face in women, as is insulin resistance (often called “Metabolic Syndrome”, which I'm told is medicalese for “Beats me. I've no clue what's going on with you.”) Are you suddenly hairier than usual, but you've not done anything unusual with your diet and you're not on any new medications? Your electrologist may recommend that you see your physician.

Hypertrichosis is often confused with hirsutism, which is a different sort of excessive hairiness. Rather than merely thicker hair than usual, hirsutism causes male pattern hair growth. In men, this can manifest as extremely thick back, arm, and facial hair. In women, it appears as beards and mustaches, as in American Horror Story's Ethel Darling, portrayed by Kathy Bates. In both, there are rare manifestations known as “werewolf syndrome”, where the entire face is covered in thick, terminal hair. Hirsutism is a medical problem often caused by a hormonal imbalance.

Yes, hair can be annoying. But please don't be upset with your electrologist if she recommends you see a doctor before she starts treatment. She cares about your health and well-being and just wants to make sure that if that hair sprouting in unusual places or in unusual density is a sign of a more serious medical problem, that you get the treatment you need. Once that's settled, she'll be glad to help get your Tom Selleck under control.

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2 Responses to “When Unwanted Hair Means a Medical Problem”

  1. Thank you for bringing attention to this fact: A visit to the electrologist is often the first screening hirsute women have to make them aware of life-changing health issues.

    The electrologist is very likely to have the name of an endocrinologist or two for the hormonal issues, as well as a dermatologist and plastic surgeon in the event of skin changes that "might" be a form of skin cancer.

    The electrologist will also be very sympathetic for whatever reason you have a Tom Selleck - whether it be hormonal or genetic or of unknown origins.

  2. June Allen says:

    Love the article! So many of my clients fit into the various categories mentioned in your post. Electrology treatments do very often mean more than just getting hairs removed. Quite often we are the first ones to observe an abnormality under our magnification. During our health history /consultation we receive information that often leads to a referral to a physician. We also receive referrals from physicians who have already diagnosed their patients with one of the conditions mentioned in your article. Thank you for sharing this. I will relay the message to my clients.

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