Treatment Side Effects - Hair Loss

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2018

Hair loss can occur as a side effect from some treatments for blood cancer, particularly chemotherapy and some targeted therapies. While not everyone experiences the same side effects from their treatment, hair loss is a common side effect. Individuals may experience hair loss at varying severities. Some people lose all their hair, others experience thinning of their hair, and some experience no hair loss. Hair loss, known medically as alopecia, can occur on the scalp, face, or body. Hair generally grows back after treatment is completed.1,2

Why does hair loss occur with blood cancer treatment?

Chemotherapy drugs target rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. Because chemotherapy drugs attack cells that are dividing quickly, they affect cancer cells as well as normal cells that divide quickly, such as cells in the bone marrow, the lining of the mouth and intestines, and hair follicles. Because of this, many chemotherapy drugs can cause hair loss or a thinning of the hair.2

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Targeted therapies help block the growth or slow the spread of cancer by interfering with specific areas of cancerous cells that are involved in the cancer cell's growth processes. Some targeted therapies can affect the hair cells as well as cancer cells, possibly causing hair thinning or hair loss. Patients should talk to their doctor or nurse about the specific treatment they are receiving and what to expect in terms of side effects.1,3

Preparing for hair loss

Hair loss from chemotherapy generally occurs two to four weeks after treatment begins, but this may vary. Hair loss may be gradual or come out in clumps. Many patients notice an increase in loose hairs on their pillows, in the shower, or in their hairbrush or comb. Additionally, the scalp also may become tender. In addition to the physical symptoms, hair loss can be an emotional and distressing side effect for patients, and many find it helpful to participate in a support group with others who understand what they are experiencing.4,5

While it's difficult to prepare emotionally for the loss of hair that can occur with treatment, it can be helpful to shop for wigs prior to losing hair, so the shop can better match the patient's color and style.2

Managing hair loss from blood cancer treatments

Unfortunately, there are not proven ways to prevent hair loss from blood cancer treatment. Some patients find that treating the hair and scalp with tender care, such as using a satin pillowcase and gently brushing or washing, can potentially reduce or slow the loss of hair. Others find that taking a proactive approach of cutting their hair short or shaving their head allows them to feel more in control.2

Wigs are another option to cover hair loss. Wigs may be covered by a patient's insurance. Some non-profit organizations also provide assistance or donated wigs.

Other patients prefer to use turbans, scarves, or hats to cover their heads. If going outside without a covering, patients should remember to use sunscreen to protect their scalp from excess sun exposure.2

Thin hair that persists after the completion of treatment occurs in less than 2% of patients. Most patients' hair begins to grow back two to three months after completing treatment. Sometimes, hair may grow back a different texture or color.5