It may be concerning, even devastating, to notice clumps of hair falling out as you wash, style or simply run your fingers through your hair. Some daily hair loss is expected -- a normal part of the hair growth cycle, although most people lose only about 100 hairs each day, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Abnormal or excessive hair loss, also called alopecia, can be caused by a variety of conditions or stressors, and this loss may be temporary or permanent. If you have an unusual amount of hair loss, speak with your doctor.
If your hair is coming out in clumps, a logical first step is to determine if any of your styling practices are the cause. Traction alopecia is a reversible form of hair loss which is linked to repeated pulling, which causes hair breakage and damage to the hair follicle. Wearing wigs, using curling rollers and pulling hair back into tight braids, ponytails or cornrows increases the chance of this type of hair loss. Hair processing agents, such as chemicals that curl, relax or color the hair can make this type of hair loss more likely. In this type of alopecia, when the underlying cause is removed, the hair usually grows back.
Hair loss may also be linked to a recent stressor. Telogen effluvium is a condition in which excess shedding of hair occurs a few months after a physically or emotionally stressful event -- pushing proportionately more hair into the telogen, or final resting phase of the hair growth cycle. In this condition, up to 50 percent of hair can be lost following a severe illness, surgery, pregnancy, significant weight loss, or stressful event such as a divorce. Usually, within 6 to 9 months, the hair regains its usual fullness.
Illnesses, Medications or Disorders
A variety of illnesses can also lead to abnormal hair loss. One such condition is alopecia areata, which is characterized by round patches of hair loss. This disorder, which is believed to have an autoimmune cause, may even lead to the complete loss of scalp and body hair. Other causes of hair loss include scalp ringworm, inflammatory or autoimmune disorders such as lupus, or hair thinning related to male or female pattern hair loss. Certain chemotherapy drugs disrupt the anogen, or growing phase of the hair life cycle, causing an abrupt loss of up to 90 percent of body hair, according to an August 2009 review in "American Family Physician." A psychiatric disorder that causes hair loss is trichotillomania, which is a compulsive need to pull or pluck hair out of the head and other parts of the body.
Excessive hair loss may be connected to an underlying health issue, but the loss itself can cause severe psychological distress to those affected. If you are concerned you have an abnormal amount of hair falling out, don't suffer in silence -- talk to your doctor or dermatologist. If the loss of hair is deemed abnormal, and not due to your styling habits, your doctor will want to evaluate your situation to determine both the cause and a management plan.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD