Most of us grow up with a full head of hair, and we’re used to seeing it whenever we look in the mirror or see ourselves in a photo. It’s part of who we are, and some folks even use it to show off their personality.
So, to see it falling out – slowly or quickly – can be a bit upsetting.
And while a lot of us may expect to lose our hair as we get older due to age or family genetics, it can sometimes happen unexpectedly for a variety of reasons.
How much hair loss is normal?
If you look on the floors of your home, inside your vacuum cleaner, or in your favorite brush or comb, odds are you’re going to find plenty of your own hair. And this is normal since every hair on our body has a lifespan before it falls out and a new hair begins growing from that follicle.
“At any given time, roughly 90% of our hair is in the growth phase and not at risk of falling out, but roughly 10% is in the final phase where it’ll fall out in the next few months,” said Andrew Peterson, MD, a family practice physician at OSF HealthCare. “This prevents us from losing our hair all at once but makes it very normal for us to shed between 50-150 hairs daily, which isn’t noticeable in terms of how we look.”
Since people don’t keep an actual count of the number of hairs they lose daily, hair loss doesn’t become noticeable until:
- They realize they’re losing more than they used to.
- They notice their hair line receding or a widening of the part in their hair.
- If they have long hair and like to pull it back in a ponytail, they notice it’s become smaller.
When to see your doctor
When it comes to hair loss, the most important things to monitor are the pattern and timing of the loss as well as the health of skin in the affected areas.
“People should see their primary care physician when they notice any hair loss accompanied by a skin rash, visible scarring or other abnormality,” Dr. Peterson said. “Another concern would be rapidly losing random patches of hair as opposed to the slow loss and pattern typical of male and female pattern baldness.”
Male and female pattern baldness
The most common cause of hair loss in men and women is androgenetic alopecia, which is a genetic condition commonly referred to as male or female pattern baldness.
Typically, this hair loss isn’t related to any visible skin abnormalities and can affect the front hair line and top of the head. It tends to spare the sides and back of the head, and it varies greatly in how much it affects different people.
In men, it can result in the easily recognized M-shaped hairline as well as balding on the crown and top of the head. In women, it starts at the center part line and results in thinning or balding on the top and crown of the head.
“When diagnosing the cause of hair loss, much of it is done in the evaluation of the scalp and discussing the pattern and timing of the loss with the patient,” Dr. Peterson said. “Occasionally, a basic blood test or skin biopsy is required.”
Common causes include:
- Bacterial, fungal and other inflammatory skin conditions
- Hormonal conditions, such as thyroid abnormalities and elevated testosterone in women
- Iron deficiency
- Physical or emotional stress
“Hair loss due to stress tends to happen two or three months after the stress onset,” Dr. Peterson said. “We classically see this in women after the birth of a child, but other medical conditions or certain illnesses can also be the root cause. If there’s no obvious cause, a blood test would likely be done to evaluate for a possible undiagnosed condition that could be stressing the body.”
Depending on the diagnosis, your doctor will provide guidance on possible treatments, which may include topical therapies, prescription therapies, treating the underlying issue or sometimes just giving it a little time.