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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hair loss in children

Spring is a time I often hear complaints of hair loss. It only took a couple seasons to notice the pattern, both in the office and with my own hairbrush. I have long suspected that it is similar to our pets shedding unneeded hair this time of year, but have never been able to find supporting evidence, at least on a reputable site.

Notice the hair loss pattern.
Photo source: Shutterstock

What I do see reproduced on many sites (mostly hair clinic sites, nothing I would rely on for information) is that both Fall and Spring are a time of normal hair thinning. Studies link hair growth to sun exposure and melatonin levels. I am definitely not a hair expert, but wanted you to know some warning signs of abnormal hair loss and when it is safe to wait it out.

Most of us lose 50-100 head hairs a day. Long hair is obviously more noticeable when lost, since it plugs shower drains, accumulates on brushes, and is seen on our clothing. Simply seeing hair being lost is not a concern.

Hair loss causes

Some causes of hair loss are easily identified. Others are harder to identify because associated symptoms are vague and not always noted to be associated with hair loss. If you are concerned, make an appointment to discuss it with your child's doctor. Since this can be a chronic issue, it is not ideally handled at an urgent care or walk in clinic. If indicated by the findings of their exam, your child's doctor may refer to a dermatologist, endocrinologist, or other specialist, but many of these can be managed by the pediatrician.
  • Traction: Braids or other hair styles that pull the hair shafts (as in picture above) can cause hair loss in a pattern easily identified by the hair style. Treatment is simple: stop styling the hair with traction. If continued, damage to the hair follicles might make regrowth impossible.
  • Babies often have hair breakage from friction on the back of their head. It usually develops the first few months of life. When they start sitting up most of the day and sleeping on their tummies it regrows. (Note: Do NOT put your baby to sleep on his tummy to prevent this. Tummy sleeping is associated with SIDS.)
  • Trichotillomania (or hair pulling disorder) is the compulsive urge to pull out (even sometimes eat) hair. It can be seen in infants and toddlers, but peaks in young school aged kids. Treatment can be difficult and involves behavioral therapy. There is some encouraging research into N-acetylcysteine (NAC) treating trichotillomania and other behaviors. 
  • Ringworm of the scalp is a fungal infection that can cause hair to break, leaving the base of the hair in the scalp. The skin can appear red and/or scaly. It can be secondarily infected with bacteria, causing swelling, pain, and drainage. After the diagnosis is confirmed, an oral medication is needed. 
  • Malnutrition can cause thinning of the hair, growth problems, behavior problems, muscle wasting, and abdominal swelling. Too little iron and/or protein in the diet can lead to hair loss. Biotin, zinc, and B12 deficiency are specific associations. In this country malnutrition is very uncommon. Treatment involves improving nutrition and addressing any underlying condition causing the malnutrition.
  • Too much Vitamin A has been linked to hair loss. If your child takes supplements, be sure to let your doctor know when you are discussing hair loss.
  • Hypothyroidism (low thyroid levels) has many symptoms, including thinning of hair. Not all need to be present, and some symptoms can be there without hypothyroidism because they are vague and common issues. Hair may become brittle and break off more easily. Hypothyroidism can cause kids to feel tired and not have much energy. Constipation is a frequent complaint. Heartbeats might slow and kids may feel cold when others are comfortable. Skin is often dry. Kids can slow their growth and may become overweight. Blood tests can help identify hypothyroidism and thyroid hormone replacement can treat it.
  • Uncontrolled diabetes can affect hair growth and loss. Working with an endocrine specialist is important to get diabetes under control.
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) can affect hair thickness. Girls with PCOS can have excessive hair growth on their body but male pattern hair loss on the head, acne, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and abnormal menstrual cycles. Blood tests along with a history and physical can help identify PCOS. 
  • Medications can cause hair loss. The most commonly known type are chemotherapy drugs, but also some acne medicines, anabolic steroids and lithium can cause hair loss. If hair loss is a concern, be sure your doctor knows all the medicines and supplements you give your child.
  • Alopecia areata causes patches of hair loss. It is an autoimmune disease --the body's immune system attacks the hair follicles. The patches can be small or cover the entire head (or even body). Skin in the area is normal. See the link above for more information.
  • Hair treatments: chemical treatments, such as coloring, straightening, bleaching and curling can lead to hair loss. Heat from a hair dryer, curler, or flat iron can break hairs. Even combing wet hair leads to more breakage because wet hair is more elastic. Limiting these treatments can allow hair to re-grow.
  • Severe stress, including that from infection or surgery, can lead to sudden hair loss. Because hair grows slowly, this is seen many weeks to months after the event. It will re-grow, usually within 6 -12 months.