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Treatment for Androgenetic Alopecia in Men and Women

By Kyleen Davis, FNP

Androgenetic alopecia (AGA) is the medical term used to describe a type of hormone-related hair loss that occurs in genetically-susceptible men and women. It is extremely common, affecting approximately 50 million men and 30 million women in the United States. Androgenetic alopecia can be significantly distressing to affected individuals and seriously impact their quality of life. Fortunately, multiple treatment strategies have been shown to help.

The onset of AGA is typically between the ages of 20 to 40 years old, but can start as early as a person’s teens. The risk of developing this condition increases later in life. Men are more commonly affected than women and may present in different ways. In males, recession of the frontal hairline is noted early on, followed by a gradual thinning at the temples and crown, forming an “M” shape. In females, the frontal hairline is preserved with a generalized thinning of the hair and widening of the part. AGA rarely leads to complete baldness in women. Other common features of AGA include gradual onset of hair loss, increased hair shedding, and a transition from large, thick, pigmented hairs to thin, short, wispy hairs.

Medication-hair-loss

Nhtindia / CC BY-SA

Diagnosing Androgenetic Alopecia

Patients with suspected AGA should be evaluated by an experienced dermatologic provider. A careful medical history and physical examination of the hair, scalp, and nails should be obtained, along with laboratory testing to rule out underlying diseases or vitamin deficiencies. A biopsy of the scalp is occasionally necessary to differentiate AGA from other types of alopecia.

Treatment of Androgenetic Alopecia

Once a diagnosis of AGA is established, treatment may be initiated with one of the following medications:

  • Minoxidil:
    • Available in 2% or 5%, topical minoxidil is the most commonly recommended treatment for AGA. Patients need to use this medication continuously for one year before determining if it will work for them. At the beginning of treatment, individuals may notice a temporary increase in hair loss, which stops as the hair begins to regrow. Common side effects include dryness, scaling, and/or itching of the scalp. Occasionally, excessive hair growth in unwanted places, like the cheeks or forehead, may occur as a result of taking this medication.
  • Prescription medications:
    • Finasteride is an FDA-approved medication used to treat AGA in men. It has been shown to halt the progression of hair loss while also leading to regrowth of hair in many cases. A commonly reported side effect is sexual dysfunction, which is reversible once the medication is stopped.
    • Spironolactone is often used in women with female-pattern hair loss. This medication acts to suppress the effects of certain hormones, and can be particularly useful in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and hirsutism—defined as excessive hair growth on the body.
  • Vitamins:
    • Many supplements containing biotin, folic acid, and antioxidants have helped patients with thinning hair.  It is important to mention any supplements you are taking to your physician prior to laboratory testing as they may affect results.
  • Shampoos:
    • One prescription shampoo, ketoconazole, has been shown to increase hair thickness in several studies. In addition, other over-the-counter shampoos can help hair hold moisture, making it appear thicker and fuller, as well as reduce breakage.
  • Laser therapy:
    • The FDA has approved low-level laser devices to treat hair loss at home. These lasers emit a low level of light that has been shown to help grow hair in a limited number of studies.
  • Platelet-rich plasma therapy:
    • Platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP) uses a person’s own blood to stimulate cells to grow hair. After the blood is drawn, it is spun down in a machine, separating it into different components. The plasma is then injected into the scalp. PRP therapy is a relatively new therapy with studies currently underway to help determine its safety and efficacy.

If you suspect you have AGA, it is important you see your dermatologist as soon as possible to discuss the treatment options that are best for you. Treatment works best when started at the first sign of hair loss.

 

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Hair Treatments: Separating Fact from Fiction, Part I

Hair loss is one of the most complicated issues in Dermatology. There are numerous potential causes including auto-immune conditions, hormonal abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, malignancies and heredity. In addition to the challenges of establishing a diagnosis, the remedies are neither fool-proof nor universally beneficial. Unlike many other areas in medicine, studies on hair growth medications and treatments are often not well-designed or double-blinded. End points are difficult to quantify. Growing hair can be elusive and determining if what you’re using is actually effective turns out to be even harder.

We know that half of all men and women over the age of 50 will experience hair loss. For those whose gradual hair thinning is a result of heredity or age and not a reversible condition– what options are scientifically based? Does anything really work? How much of what we believe about hair growth and hair care is just a myth?

Hair Loss Treatments

As of today, the only FDA-approved medications for the treatment of hair loss are topical Minoxidil and oral Finasteride.

Minoxodil is an over-the-counter solution or foam found in two different strengths: 2% and 5% . Although how it works is not entirely clear, minoxidil does seem to increase hair growth rate and hair follicle diameter.

What I have observed is that it increases hair growth in about 1/3 of patients, maintains hair in another third and doesn’t do much in the rest.

Recommended Usage of Hair Loss Treatments

There are a lot of misconceptions about its use, however, and that leads to less than optimal results.  Patients will often stop using minoxidil if it doesn’t work within the first 2 months, believing that it’s not going to be effective for them. It turns out that many people won’t see results until 4- 6 months of daily use. I recommend continuing for a full year before giving up.

I also find that patients are reluctant to start Minoxidil because they think they must commit to it for the rest of their lives and if they stop their hair will all fall out. NOT TRUE! Like many things, such as sunscreen or hair spray, it’s only going to work when you use it. But that doesn’t mean someone has to apply it forever or that you’ll lose all your hair if you stop. You won’t. Your hair just goes back to where it was before you started Minoxidil.

Contrary to what some believe, Minoxidil will not cause hair loss to worsen. It can seem like it does for some people, because as new hair growth begins, resting or not-growing hairs are pushed out. This shedding can make it seem like hair is actually being lost; however overall hair count and the size of the hair shaft are actually increasing when this happens.

Suggested Hair Care for Those Experiencing Hair Loss

What about hair care? If you’re losing hair should you shampoo or brush less frequently, and stop dying your treating your hair?

Shampooing often enough to eliminate scale on the scalp helps optimize hair growth. Certain shampoos are better for this than others. However the frequency of hair washing will not make an impact on hair growth. You might be more aware of the loss when you shampoo, but there is no evidence linking hair loss to hair washing.

Similarly neither brushing your hair nor using chemical treatments such as dyes, perms or straighteners will cause you to lose your hair. What they can do, though, is make hair weaker and more susceptible to breakage, which can make hair loss more noticeable. So proceed with caution.

More Information

Hair loss is more than just having a bad hair day. It can signify a health problem and it can also be psychologically devastating for both men and women. We are exposed to a deluge of options regarding hair growth— only some of which are legitimate. Some treatments may turn out to be helpful, but data to support them is limited or non-existent.

In a future blog I’ll explore what we know and don’t know about the other approved medication, finasteride, along with supplements, hair lasers and PRP.


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