Hair Loss in Women: Often More than a Single Cause!

Hair Loss in Women: Often More than a Single Cause!

Hair loss among women is common. Although it's natural to think there is a single cause of an individual's hair loss, women often have more than one reason for their reduced hair density or 'hair thinning.'

Example: Consider the 32 year old woman who came into see me for her first appointment. She told me that she had been using minoxidil topical lotion for a 8 months now for a presumed diagnosis of:

Presumed diagnosis:

1. Female Pattern Hair Loss (also known as androgenetic alopecia).

However, she felt her hair was not getting better. She had some annoying scalp itching from time to time and wondered if she should stop the mionxidil as she was told the lotion could sometimes cause itching.

Is this the correct diagnosis? What should she do to stop her itching?

Join me as we pursue the necessary "detective work" to come up with the correct diagnosis for this woman and ultimately help her hair improve. First, lets take a look at her scalp up close:


Is this normal? Is it abnormal? Well, let's compare this photo to a relatively normal appearing scalp from a similarly aged woman in my practice with good hair density and extremely healthy hair. You'll note that all the hairs are fairly similar size (calibre) and the scalp itself is not red and their is no scaling or flaking:


Now that we know what is normal, let's return to the 32 year old woman with hair loss. Many things can be seen by examing this woman's scalp. First this woman has many 'thick' hairs. The light blue arrows show the thick hairs (also called terminal hairs).


However, this woman also has many thinner hairs with greatly reduced calibre (skinnier hairs). These thinner hairs are known as "miniaturized hairs" and the green arrows below point to several miniaturized hairs. Miniaturization is frequently seen in individuals who have a diagnosis of "androgenetic alopecia" (also called female balding or female pattern hair loss):


So I know this woman has androgenetic alopecia as one of her diagnoses.  But the other thing that is noted is that she not only has many skinnier hairs, but she also has a significantly reduced number of hairs.  You can see that the hair density that is seen in the top of the picture is very different than in the bottom of the picture  - the blue stars show the "missing hairs." So we know that she has lost a lot of hair.  


By gently pulling on several of her hairs, I discover that many of these remaining hairs come out pretty easily. This is called a "positive pull test" and this test is a sign this woman may have excessive shedding ( a phenomenon called telogen effluvium). In fact, the orange arrows point to many of these telogen hairs - which are farily easy to spot in this photo because telogen hairs become much lighter in color as they are about to shed from the scalp. So we are gaining some good evidence that this woman has an abnormal shedding problem:


As I described in a previous  video, there are many causes of exessive or abnomal shedding. The include low iron levels, thyroid problems, crash diets and a variety of medications. Basic blood tests performed in this patient showed she had very low iron levels. Further details also revealed she had multiple cycles of crash dieting in the past one year. These are certainly two potentially important causes for her shedding.

Further examination of her scalp showed that there is redness in the scalp and some scale. The red arrows in the photo below point to this scale:


There are many causes of scale but this woman scale and the redness in her scalp is typical of a condition called seborrheic dermatitis. Scalp "dandruff" and seborrheic dermatitis are two closely related processes and are caused by a common yeast called Malasezzia. Seborrheic dermatitis is very common and causes scalp itching and redness and excess flaking. Often patients notice that their scalp feels better if they wash their hair more often as this helps reduce the annoying itch they sometimes experience. Seborrheic dermatitis may cause itching but doesn't typically cause hair loss. Additional questions showed that this woman had scalp itching long before she started using the topical minoxidil therapy - so her itching may be coming from her seborrheic dermatitis rather than the minoxidil ! However, both are possible.

So at this point, it appears this woman does in fact have female pattern hair loss, but she also has three other diagnoses:

1. Female pattern hair loss (also known as androgenetic alopecia).

2. Telogen effluvium (exess hair shedding) - from low iron levels

3. Telogen effluvium (exess hair shedding) - from crash dieting

4. Seborrheic dermatitis

But is this ALL she has?

For this patient, further questioning revealed that the cause of her low iron was very likely from heavy and sometimes irregular menstrual periods. She could go several months without a period. Additional blood work and an ultrasound of this woman's ovaries showed that she in fact had a condition known as polycystic ovarian syndrome or "PCOS."  Women with PCOS have altered hormone levels which can cause hair thinning.  The altered hormone levels are produced by the ovaries. Early diagnosis of this condition is extremely important as women with PCOS have a higher chance of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, infertility and high cholesterol.  She was referred to an endrocinologist for further evaluation of her PCOS.

Final diagnoses for this woman: 

1. Female pattern hair loss - with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

2. Telogen effluvium (exess hair shedding) - from low iron levels

3. Telogen effluvium (exess hair shedding) - from crash dieting

4. Seborrheic dermatitis

How was this woman ultimately treated?

This woman was continued on her topical minoxidil therapy as it was concluded this was NOT a cause of her particular symptom of itching.  On account of her diagnosis of PCOS, she was advised to start on a birth control pill to regulate her periods. Oral Spironolactone medication was also started to help her androgenetic alopecia. Iron pills were prescribed to help the low iron levels and blood work was performed every 5 months to ensure the iron levels were rising properly. The woman's diet was stabilized to ensure that no further crash dieting would occur. The seborrheic dermatitis was treated with an anti fungal shampoo and this helped stop her itching. An improvement in hair density was noted in 6 months.


Diagnosing hair loss in woman often requires a bit more detective work than hair loss in men. Hormonal issues, and hair shedding conditions are more common in women than men. One should never assume that a patient has a single diagnosis for their hair loss -- all causes need to be explored. This can only come with a very detailed history about the patients hair loss, past health, diet, medications, family history and a very detailed examination of the scalp.

Dr. Jeff Donovan is a Canadian and US board certified dermatologist specializing exclusively in hair loss. To schedule a consultation, please call the Whistler office at 604.283.1887

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