Why Self-diagnosing Your Hair Loss is a Bad Idea
“When did you graduate from medical school?” my husband asks me on a regular basis. I didn’t, but I am a self-proclaimed expert in the medical field anyway. Why wouldn’t my Google education make me highly qualified to diagnose the whole family’s symptoms and illnesses? Evidently, I’m not the only one self-diagnosing. A survey conducted in March 2020 indicated that nearly one-third of all Americans do their own medical research. (01)
Being your own doctor can work against you though. In fact, when I first started losing my hair, I didn’t even think to have it checked. Based on what I read, postpartum hair loss is normal, and I had two babies in two years. I would never in a million years have guessed that I had alopecia. However, knowing what I know now, I do not recommend waiting to consult with a medical professional if you’re noticing an unusual amount of hair loss. Treating hair loss early helps you prevent further shedding and even regrow your hair. Here are seven more reasons why you should schedule an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist and hair specialist if you’re concerned about the amount of hair you’re losing.
Reason #1: Dermatologists are familiar with hair loss patterns associated with specific hair loss conditions.
Your dermatologist has spent countless hours studying and memorizing the different types of hair loss. Many times, just looking at patients’ hair loss patterns gives your dermatologist clues as to where to start with a work-up to get a diagnosis. Common hair loss conditions and associated patterns are:
- Androgenic alopecia (men) – Receding hairline and gradual thinning on top
- Androgenic alopecia (women) – Widening of the part
- Alopecia areata – Patchy or circular bald spots on the head, eyebrows, or beard
- Telogen effluvium – Overall thinning due to sudden hair loss
- Fungal infection – Scaly patches that spread over the scalp
- Alopecia totalis – Full-body hair loss
If your dermatologist suspects that you have androgenic alopecia, known as male or female pattern baldness, he or she may use the Norwood scale, a scale of 1 to 7, to track the progression of your hair loss. The scale helps your dermatologist recommend the best possible treatment options to prevent further hair loss and stimulate growth based on the amount of recession or thinning you have.
Reason #2: Your doctor can determine the severity of your hair loss
Losing a certain amount of hair is normal and is part of the hair growth cycle. How do you know if the amount you’re seeing in the sink or shower is too much? You don’t. However, once your dermatologist has an idea of your hair loss pattern, he or she has a number of tools and tests he or she can use to determine the extent of your hair loss. The most common are:
A pull test is pretty much as the name indicates. During the test, your doctor will gently tug on small sections of hair from parts of your scalp. Usually, the litmus test is six or more strands. If you lose that much, your hair loss is active.
A scalp biopsy, also known as a punch biopsy, is often used to determine what type of alopecia you have. It allows pathologists to see inflammation and can distinguish whether the alopecia is scarring or non-scarring. To take the biopsy, your dermatologist numbs the area and uses a pencil-sized device to remove a small amount of tissue that is sent to a lab for analysis. The incision is closed with a couple of small stitches.
If your dermatologist wants to analyze your scalp and hair, he or she may do a trichometric analysis using a small handheld device with a high-definition camera. The device magnifies images by up to 100 times so your hair, hair follicles, and scalp can be seen in great detail. The tool shows how much hair is covering your scalp, and the diameter of each hair strand. Dermatologists often use this camera to monitor progress after you begin treatment.
If your dermatologist suspects that your hair loss is due to a fungus in your hair or scalp, he or she may run this test. Fungal cultures determine if a condition called tinea capitis, scalp ringworm, is causing your hair loss. During the test, a small sample of skin or hair is sent to a lab for incubation.
Reason #3: Your vitamin levels may need to be checked
Often one of the first questions dermatologists often ask new patients is whether they have recently had a routine blood test. The reason why is because simple vitamin deficiencies can cause hair loss. Fortunately, if this is the case, supplements will usually solve the problem quickly and easily. The two most common vitamin deficiencies that cause hair loss are vitamin D and iron.
Studies have shown that vitamin D has anti-inflammatory properties and affects the hair cycle. (02) When your body has a vitamin D deficiency, regulation of the hair follicles is challenging. Growth and shedding cycles are disrupted causing your hair to suddenly fall out.
Iron deficiency stunts the production of hemoglobin which transports oxygen to the cells in your body, including the cells that make your hair grow. The hair follicles lack the nutrients they need to thrive. With an iron deficiency, hair sheds and thins, giving the appearance similar to androgenic alopecia.
Reason #4: Your hormones may be out of whack
Your dermatologist may also run blood tests to check for hormonal imbalances. Hormone imbalances can cause hair to get dry, brittle, thin, or fall out altogether. The only way to know if this is the case is to have your levels checked.
Contrary to popular belief, high or low testosterone is not an indicator of hair loss. Research has continually demonstrated that there is not a link between serum androgen levels and androgenic alopecia. (03) Instead, male pattern baldness could be linked to an androgen sensitivity or high androgen density.
Factors that can affect your hormone levels include:
Estrogen levels fall before, during, and after menopause while testosterone levels inversely increase. During the process, the testosterone converts to dihydrotestosterone (DHT) which attacks your hair follicles, and makes your hair fall out.
Stress is a bigger contributor to hair loss than most people realize. When you are stressed out, your body creates cortisol which disrupts the function and regulation of your hair follicles as well as your hair growth cycle.
During pregnancy, estrogen levels rise, causing your hair to get fuller and thicker. After the baby is born, however, those levels drop rapidly, making the excess hair shed. It can take a while for your estrogen levels and hair loss to balance out.
Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism have been linked to alopecia. In a 2013 study, patients aged 21-40 with thyroid disfunction were likely to have diffuse alopecia and alopecia areata. Patients older than 40 were more likely to have alopecia areata and androgenic alopecia. (04) The findings confirm the importance of checking thyroid levels when there is a hair loss issue.
Reason #5: You could have a scalp infection
A number of scalp infections can cause hair loss. These infections can easily be confused with various types of alopecia, but once treated, hair typically regrows. Examples include:
Ringworm is a fungal infection that forms scaly, raised, red patches. Itching is a common complaint among patients with scalp ringworm and is typically treated with anti-fungal medications.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that causes thick red patches, and sometimes scaling. There isn’t a cure, but proper management can help prevent hair loss.
Seborrheic dermatitis causes dandruff in adults, characterized by dry, flaky skin, and typically does not cause hair loss. Shampoos and topical medications are often recommended.
Lichen planus causes inflammation and can leave tiny red bumps on your scalp. The cause is not known for certain, although autoimmune dysfunction is one of the possible causes. Topical creams are often used to treat symptoms, but in many cases, lichen planus will disappear without treatment.
Your dermatologist has been trained to address and treat all of these infections.
Reason #6: Sometimes you need an outside perspective
When your dermatologist takes your medical history, he or she may be able to identify bad habits that are affecting your hair and contributing to your hair loss. Some of these habits may include:
- Poor diet filled with processed foods
- Tight buns, ponytails, braids, or other hairstyles that can pull on your hair and cause traction alopecia
- Compulsively pulling on your hair (trichotillomania)
Reason #7: The most effective medications are only available by prescription
Hair loss products are similar to skincare products in that very few over-the-counter (OTC) products are truly effective. If you have a graveyard of barely or partially used tubes and containers under your bathroom sink, you get the picture. The reality is that besides Minoxidil which is sold OTC as Rogaine in a 5 percent formula, you’re wasting your money on OTC hair loss products. You’ll need a doctor to write a prescription. Some of the most effective and widely used prescription hair loss medications that your doctor may prescribe are:
Designed to enlarge the hair follicles and prevent miniaturization. Used to treat a broad spectrum of hair loss conditions.
- Sold OTC in foam and liquid formulas
- Available by prescription in higher dose pills and topical formulas
Prevents testosterone from converting to DHT, which attacks the hair follicles and causes hair loss. Often used to treat male and female pattern hair loss.
- Available only by prescription
- Reported sexual side effects such as lower libido by some users
- Used by both men and women, but not recommended for women of childbearing age
- Topical formula is proven to be equally as effective as the pill without the undesirable side effects since it is not systemic.
A derivative of Vitamin A that improves the absorption of Minoxidil, Finasteride, and other medications that stimulate hair growth.
- Typically not used as a stand-alone hair loss solution
- Low OTC doses not as potent as prescription doses
A DHT blocker used to treat female pattern hair loss.
- Available only by prescription
- Safe for women who have not been through menopause
When to see a doctor
In a 2015 study conducted by the National Library of Medicine, nearly one-third of people surveyed reported avoiding the doctor, even those with major health problems. (05) The result was later detection, reduced survival rates, and more suffering than necessary. You won’t die if your hair falls out, but why lose your hair if you don’t have to? If you are experiencing hair loss, be sure to seek medical treatment from a licensed dermatologist. Early medical intervention not only prevents further hair loss but in many cases, can help you regrow your hair.
If you have hair loss concerns and if accessibility and/or affordability is an issue, visit us at happyhead.com. You will have the opportunity to consult with one of our board-certified dermatologists and hair specialists. No insurance or co-pay is required. You only pay for the product if deemed necessary and appropriate.