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Hair Loss From Cancer Treatment

Topic Overview

Hair loss can be emotionally distressing. Not all cancer treatments cause hair loss, and some people have only mild thinning that is noticeable only to them. Your doctor will be able to tell you whether hair loss is an expected side effect of your treatment.

Hair loss from chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can cause hair loss on all parts of the body, not just the head. Facial hair, arm and leg hair, underarm hair, and pubic hair all may be affected.

Not all chemotherapy medicines cause hair loss. Talk to your doctor about what you can expect.

Hair loss usually doesn't occur right away. More often, your hair will begin falling out within a few weeks after the start of treatment. Your hair may fall out gradually or in clumps. The hair that remains may be very dry or brittle.

Hair almost always starts growing back in 2 to 3 months. The new hair is usually very fine. Your hair may look different when it comes back. It may grow back with a different color or texture.

Hair loss from radiation

Radiation causes hair loss only on the part of your body that is being treated. For example, you will lose some or all of the hair on your head if you have radiation for a brain tumor. Or you will lose the hair on your leg if you are having radiation to your leg.

Hair loss usually doesn't occur right away. More often, your hair will begin falling out within a few weeks of treatment. After your hair starts falling out, it takes about a week for you to lose all the hair in the area you are getting radiation.

Hair usually grows back within 3 to 6 months after falling out. But sometimes with very high dose of radiation, hair doesn't grow back. When hair does grow back, it may be a different color or texture.

Managing hair loss on your head

Your scalp may be tender or sore while you are losing your hair and afterwards. Here are some ways to take special care of your hair and scalp.

  • Use a mild shampoo and a soft hair brush.
  • Try to air-dry your hair. If you have to use a hair dryer, use the low-heat setting.
  • Consider having your hair cut short. A shorter style will make your hair look thicker and fuller. It also will make hair loss easier to manage if it occurs.
  • Consider shaving your head. If you shave your own head, use an electric shaver.
  • Sleep on a satin pillowcase.
  • Do not use brush rollers to set your hair.
  • Do not dye your hair or get a permanent while you are taking chemotherapy or having radiation treatments to your head.
  • Use a sunscreen, sunblock, hat, scarf, or wig to protect your scalp from the sun.

You may feel more comfortable leaving your head uncovered. Or you may decide to wear hats, turbans, scarves, caps, wigs, or hairpieces. You may choose to switch back and forth, depending on whether you are in public or at home with friends and family members.

Here are some tips to help you choose a wig or hairpiece:

  • Shop for your wig or hairpiece before you lose a lot of hair so you can match your natural color, texture, and style. You may be able to buy a wig or hairpiece at a specialty shop just for cancer patients. You also can buy a wig or hairpiece through the American Cancer Society's catalog "Tender Loving Care" at www.tlcdirect.org, or call 1-800-850-9445 to have a print copy sent to you.
  • You may prefer to borrow rather than buy a wig or hairpiece. If so, call your local American Cancer Society or check with the social work department at your treatment center.
  • Remember that a hairpiece needed because of cancer treatment is a tax-deductible expense and may be at least partially covered by your health insurance. Be sure to check your policy, and ask your doctor to write a prescription for a "hair prosthesis."

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Ross Berkowitz, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Last Revised June 28, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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