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THERE'S HOPE FOR HAIR LOSS

If you're finding fewer hairs on your head and more in your sink, you may be a little concerned. It's normal to shed between 50 and 100 hairs each day, but if you're losing more, you could be suffering from excessive hair loss.

The medical term for hair loss is alopecia. The most common type is male pattern baldness, a condition that affects nearly two-thirds of all men. It is almost always the result of a genetic gift that is passed down from generation to generation. A history of the condition on either side of your family tree increases your chances of being bald. Heredity also influences the age at which balding begins, as well as the extent and the pattern of hair loss.

Male pattern baldness can begin as early as the teen years. For men, hair loss usually starts at the temples and the crown of the head, with an end result of partial or complete baldness. Unfortunately, it is usually a permanent condition.

Male pattern baldness can affect women as well, although less commonly. Women with the condition generally lose hair at the front, sides or crown of the scalp. While women can experience significant thinning, complete baldness rarely occurs.

Another type of hair loss, known as alopecia areata, affects approximately 2 percent of the population. This condition produces baldness in small, round patches on the scalp, but hair loss may occur on other parts of the body, including eyebrows and eyelashes.

The exact cause of alopecia areata is unknown, but it is classified as an autoimmune disease. For some reason, the immune system begins to attack the body it is supposed to be defending. Unlike male pattern baldness, alopecia areata is usually a temporary condition, but it can take several years for lost hair to grow back.

Male pattern baldness and alopecia areata may be at the root of hair loss problems, but there are other causes. Certain diseases, including diabetes, lupus and thyroid disorders can be to blame.

Poor nutrition is occasionally responsible. Extremely low-calorie diets and nutritionally incomplete fad diets can keep you from getting the protein, vitamins and minerals that your body needs, and hair loss may result.

Medications can cause temporary hair loss, including drugs used in the treatment of gout, arthritis, depression and high blood pressure. Some women may experience hair loss as a result of taking birth control pills.

Childbirth can cause excessive shedding. Many women notice an increase in hair loss several months after delivering a baby, but this condition usually corrects itself without treatment.

Some people experience dramatic hair loss several months after suffering a major illness or undergoing a surgical procedure. These events can cause hair to shift rapidly into its resting phase, resulting in more shedding and less new hair growth. Fortunately, hair growth usually returns to normal within a few months.

Scalp infections, including ringworm, can cause changes on the skin's surface that lead to hair loss. Once the infections are treated, hair growth is usually restored. There is no sure-fire cure for baldness, but in some cases, it can be treated. Hair loss that is not related to male pattern baldness is best managed by your physician or a dermatologist.

If you've got male pattern baldness and want to try a do-it-yourself program, an over-the-counter drug called minoxidil might be your best bet. Minoxidil was originally sold under the brand name Rogaine, but generic products are now available.

Minoxidil should be rubbed into the scalp twice daily to regrow hair and prevent further loss. The good news is that about 25 percent of men and 20 percent of women experience some new hair growth with the product. The bad news is that the treatment must be used daily for as long as you want to keep your new hair.

Men with male pattern baldness might benefit from a prescription drug called Propecia. Propecia comes in the form of a pill, and its greatest claim to fame is halting hair loss in the early stages of baldness. Studies show that in over 80 percent of newly balding men, the drug helped slow premature shedding. Propecia isn't approved for use in women, as it may cause serious birth defects in developing fetuses.

Although hair loss is typically a painless process, many people with the condition suffer serious emotional consequences. If you're experiencing excessive hair loss, see your doctor. Together, you can get to the root of the problem.

Dr. Rallie McAllister is a family physician in Kingsport, Tenn.

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