Baldness or hair loss is usually something only adults need to worry about. But sometimes teens lose their hair, too — and it may be a sign that something’s going on.
Hair loss during adolescence can mean a person may be sick or just not eating right. Some medicines or medical treatments (like chemotherapy) also cause hair loss. People can even lose their hair if they wear a hairstyle (like braids) that pulls on the hair for a long time.
Losing hair can be stressful. Most of the time, hair loss during the teen years is temporary. With temporary hair loss, the hair usually grows back after the problem that causes it is corrected.
Hair is made of a kind of protein called keratin. A single hair has a hair shaft (the part that shows), a root below the skin, and a follicle. The follicle is the place the hair root grows from. At the lower end of the follicle is the hair bulb. This is where the hair’s color pigment, or melanin, is produced.
Most people lose about 50 to 100 head hairs a day. These hairs are replaced — they grow back in the same follicle on your head. This amount of hair loss is totally normal and no cause for worry. If you’re losing more than that, though, something might be wrong.
If you have hair loss and don’t know what’s causing it, talk to your doctor. A doctor can determine why the hair is falling out and suggest a treatment that will correct the underlying problem, if necessary.
What Causes Hair Loss?
Here are some of the things that can cause hair loss in teens:
- Illnesses or medical conditions. Endocrine (hormonal) conditions, such as uncontrolled diabetes or thyroid disease, can interfere with hair production and cause hair loss. People with lupus can also lose hair. The hormone imbalance that happens in polycystic ovary syndrome can cause hair loss in teen girls as well as adult women.
- Medicines. Sometimes doctors prescribe medicines that have hair loss as a side effect. Chemotherapy drugs for cancer are probably the medicines most known for causing hair loss. But hair loss also can be a side effect of some medicines used to treat acne, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Diet pills that contain amphetamines also can cause hair loss.
Alopecia areata (pronounced: al-uh-PEE-shuh air-ee-AH-tuh). This skin disease causes hair loss on the scalp and sometimes elsewhere on the body. About 1 in 50 people get this type of alopecia at some point in life. Scientists think alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder and that the hair follicles are damaged by the person’s own immune system.
Alopecia areata usually starts as one or more small, round bald patches on the scalp. These can get bigger. In a small number of cases, the person loses all hair. Both guys and girls can get it, and it often begins in childhood. The hair usually grows back within a year, but not always. Sometimes people with alopecia areata lose their hair again.
- Trichotillomania (pronounced: trik-o-til-uh-MAY-nee-uh). Trichotillomania is a psychological disorder in which people repeatedly pull their hair out, often leaving bald patches. That can leave areas of baldness and damaged hairs of different lengths. People with trichotillomania usually need help from a therapist or other mental health professional before they can stop pulling their hair out.
Hair treatments and styling. Treatments that use chemicals, like hair color, bleach, straightening, or perms can cause hair damage that makes the hair break off or fall out temporarily. The same can happen when using too much heat on your hair (like using a hot iron or hot blow drying).
Another type of baldness that goes with hair styling can be permanent: Wearing your hair in a style that pulls too tightly can cause something called traction alopecia. Traction alopecia can permanently damage the hair follicles if you wear a style that pulls on your hair for a long time. if you are getting your hair styled and it hurts, ask the stylist to redo it so that it is no longer painful. Pain is a sign of too much traction on the hair.
- Poor nutrition. Not eating enough healthy food can contribute to hair loss. This is why some people with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia lose their hair: The body isn’t getting enough protein, vitamins, and minerals to support hair growth. Some teens who are vegetarians also lose their hair if they don’t get enough protein from non-meat sources. And some athletes are at higher risk for hair loss because they may be more likely to develop iron-deficiency anemia.
- Disruption of the hair growth cycle. Some major events can alter the hair’s growth cycle temporarily. For example, delivering a baby, having surgery, going through a traumatic event, or having a serious illness or high fever can temporarily cause shedding of large amounts of hair. Because the hair we see on our heads has actually taken months to grow, a person might not notice any disruption of the hair growth cycle until months after the event that caused it. This type of hair loss corrects itself.
- Androgenetic alopecia. Among adults, the most common cause of hair loss is androgenetic (pronounced: an-druh-juh-NEH-tik) alopecia. This is sometimes called male- or female-pattern baldness. This condition is caused by a combination of things, including a person’s genes and hormones called androgens. This kind of hair loss can sometimes start as early as the mid-teen years. It also can happen to people who take steroids like testosterone to build their bodies.
What Can Doctors Do?
If you see a doctor about hair loss, he or she will ask questions about your health and family health (your medical history). The doctor will check your scalp, and might take hair samples and test for certain medical conditions that can cause hair loss.
If medicine is causing your hair loss, ask the doctor if you can switch to a different medicine. If your hair loss is due to an endocrine condition, like diabetes or thyroid disease or female-pattern baldness, proper treatment and control of the underlying disorder is important to reduce or prevent hair loss.
If your doctor recommends it, a product like minoxidil can increase hair growth in male- and female-pattern baldness. Alopecia areata can be helped by treatment with corticosteroid creams or injections on the scalp. If your doctor thinks that nutritional deficiencies are causing your hair loss, he or she might refer you to a dietitian or other nutrition expert.
Catastrophic Hair Loss
Hair loss can be the first outward sign that a person is sick, so it can feel scary. Teens who have cancer and lose their hair because of chemotherapy treatments might go through a difficult time.
It can help to feel like you have some control over your appearance when you’re losing your hair. When getting chemo, some people like to cut their hair or shave their heads before the hair falls out. Some even take the hair they cut off and have it made into a wig.
Many options can help disguise hair loss — such as wearing wigs, hair wraps, hats, and baseball caps. For most teens who lose their hair, the hair does return — including after chemotherapy.
Taking Care of Your Hair
Eating a balanced, healthy diet is important for a lot of reasons. Healthy foods can really benefit your hair.
If you’re losing hair, some doctors recommend using baby shampoo, washing your hair no more than once a day, and lathering gently. Don’t rub your hair too vigorously with a towel, either. Many hair experts suggest putting away the blow dryer and air drying your hair instead. If you can’t live without your blow dryer, use it on a low-heat setting.
Styling your hair while it’s wet can cause it to stretch and break. So style your hair when it’s dry or damp. Avoid teasing or back-combing your hair because they can cause damage. Finally, be careful when using chemicals — such as straighteners or color treatments. Don’t get any kind of chemical treatment done too often.
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: November 2014