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Does radiation cause hair loss?

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Radiation is a medical treatment that targets harmful cells in the body and is primarily used to get rid of cancerous cells. One of the ways radiation works is by targeting cells that undergo rapid growth. For this reason, specific cells in the body that proliferate can also be affected, and hair is one of them. Here, we answer why radiation can cause hair loss and what you can do to support your hair through this medical treatment.


How Radiation Works

Radiation uses high-energy waves to destroy cancerous cells. What makes it selective for cancerous cells over normal healthy cells in the body is that cancer cells divide and multiply rapidly. (Indeed, that is one of the reasons these cells are so harmful and why quick treatment is vital). The waves, (and sometimes particles), emitted by radiation therapy cause a break in the DNA of rapidly replicating cells so that they no longer function and cannot replicate further.

 

One of the benefits of radiation over other cancer treatments like chemotherapy is that it is targeted therapy, meaning that it does not have to travel through your bloodstream in search of cancerous cells. Rather, it can be used on a certain organ or tissue where there is cancer.


Radiation and Hair Loss

While radiation therapy can be very effective at targeting rapidly dividing cancer cells, it cannot differentiate between cancerous and non-cancerous cells. Thus, healthy, normal cells that rapidly divide in the body can also be targeted, and hair cells are one of them.

 

Cells in the hair follicle rapidly divide as hair grows. If they did not divide quickly, hair growth would be a prolonged process. Therefore, if a person has radiation on the head or around the neck, they may lose some hair. However, those losses are only temporary, and usually, hair growth begins once again after treatment ends. If a person were to have radiation elsewhere on their body, such as the chest, abdomen, pelvic, or legs, hair loss would only occur in the areas targeted, not on the head.

 

Yet, there is one exception where that may occur, and that is where the beam or wavelength exits the body. If that beam were to reach the head, it would unintentionally also attack hair follicles somewhere on the head.

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Hair Regrowth After Radiation

The good news is your hair will grow back after treatment is stopped. However, that does not mean it is not emotionally challenging to bear before, during, and after the course of treatment. And it’s important to know that there is no right or wrong way on how to feel about potential hair loss, as it affects everyone differently.

 

Some people prefer to prepare themselves ahead of time by cutting their hair shorter or even shaving their heads if they know their hair will fall out. Others prefer to wait and see the extent to which they lose hair. Some people also rely on wigs to make the transition smoother.

 

If you do experience hair loss or thinning from radiation, it can take time to grow back. With that said, it can be like a fresh start for your hair, and giving it some TLC as it grows in can be pretty helpful. For example, some people use silk or satin pillowcases and soft hair brushes to reduce friction on their growing strands. Others use gentle shampoos and conditioners to minimize skin irritation and drying. And, it certainly helps to avoid coloring the hair, especially in the beginning when your scalp may be particularly sensitive. Finally, it is helpful to use sun protection if you do have thinning hair or hair loss, as the sun can cause damage and inflammation on the scalp.  

 

Hair loss in any form is challenging to navigate, but when it is because of cancer treatment, it can certainly strike a different cord. The National Cancer Institute and CancerCare are great resources for learning more about what to expect with hair loss and cancer treatment.


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