Cancer treatment and hair loss

Any treatment which acts on rapidly dividing cancer cells can also affect other rapidly dividing cells such as hair follicles (roots). Talk to your doctors and nurses before treatment starts about whether you are likely to lose your hair, and if so, the level of hair loss to be expected.

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Chemotherapy and hair loss

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to reduce or stop the abnormal growth of cancer cells. Depending on what type of chemotherapy you receive you may experience complete hair loss, hair thinning or no impact on your hair at all. Chemotherapy drugs are usually given in cycles and the amount of hair loss depends on the type of drug, the dose and the timing of treatment.

Hair loss can occur anywhere on the body including the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, chest, underarms, face and pubic area.

Chemotherapy may cause the hair on your head to break off at or near the scalp. Shortly before the hair falls out you might feel some scalp irritation, discomfort or itchiness. You may notice fallen hair on your pillow and sheets and when you brush or wash it. The hair may fall out over a very short period of time (days). It is common for hair loss to begin two to three weeks after starting treatment. Eyelashes and eyebrows may take longer to fall out.

Cold caps

Cold caps or scalp cooling may help reduce the amount of hair loss for some individuals. They work by narrowing the blood vessels and reducing the amount of chemotherapy reaching the scalp. Not all treatment centres offer these as they can be expensive and are not always successful. Scalp cooling is not suitable for everyone so you will need to check with your health professional.

Radiation therapy and hair loss

Also known as radiotherapy, radiation therapy uses a controlled dose of radiation to kill cancer cells or damage them so they cannot grow, multiply or spread. If you have hair in the area being treated, you may lose some or all of it during or just after radiation therapy. Hair regrowth or thickening may start within a few weeks of finishing treatment, but sometimes hair loss may be permanent.

Hair will only fall out in the area of the body being treated. For example, if you are having radiation therapy to your head you will probably lose some hair from your scalp. If the area being treated includes an armpit or your chest, then it is only hair in these regions that is likely to fall out.

This information was last reviewed in July 2019
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