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Hair Loss and Hepatitis C: A Lesser Known Symptom

Even in the healthiest of people, hair loss (alopecia) is a common occurrence. On average, a person loses anywhere between 50 to 150 hairs every single day. That quantity of hair loss is not usually an issue, because a healthy head of hair has over 100,000 individual hair follicles. It’s when people begin losing even more than the typical 50-150 hairs per day that hair loss can become a problem. An abnormal amount of hair loss can have a number of different causes, such harsh chemicals, care, and products; hereditary factors; and medical conditions like hepatitis C (HCV) and some of HCV's treatment regimens for HCV. This article discusses the connection between hair loss and hepatitis C and tips for reduction.

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While it is thought that the effects of hepatitis C on the liver can indirectly impact the health of one’s hair, skin, and nails, one of the most common culprits of hair loss in people who are living with hepatitis C is HCV treatment regimens containing interferon therapy.

Individuals who have been diagnosed with hepatitis C and/or who are undergoing a treatment regimen that contains interferon therapy typically begin to notice that hair has become brittle- it breaks off easily, is dull, texture has changed (straight hair becomes curly or vice-versa), and/or it becomes thinner. Although it is rare for someone to go entirely bald or to lose all of their body hair while undergoing treatment, interferon therapy, in particular, can cause changes in texture and thickness in hair on both the head and the body.

Hepatitis C & hair loss

A healthy liver breaks down toxins in your cells and helps your body eliminate them. When the liver is compromised from the effects of the hepatitis C, virus or from the effects of treating the hepatitis C virus, toxins build-up in the body’s tissues, nutrients have a harder time reaching cells, and inflammation can occur. Excessive toxins, lack of nutrients, and inflammation can all manifest as deficiencies to hair, skin, and nail tissues, because they are lacking the energy and components necessary to repair and regenerate themselves. In extreme cases, a patient might even experience jaundice (a yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes), due to too much bilirubin – a bi-product of a healthy recycling of old cells – backed up in the system.

Treatment-related hair loss

Treatment-related hair loss is one of the common side effects of interferon-based treatment. While common, those who experience treatment-related hair loss tend to have varied results – some notice a thinning or a change in texture, while others may lose nearly all of their hair. Usually, a patient only experiences interferon-based hair loss temporarily (while undergoing therapy), but they may continue to notice hair changes and loss for up to as many as 3 months after completing treatment.

The good news is that changes in texture or hair loss is almost always temporary, and the hair damaged and lost while undergoing interferon treatment usually grows back. Occasionally, people have even noticed their hair comes back healthier and thicker than prior to being diagnosed and embarking on an HCV treatment regimen.

How to reduce hair loss

Changes to your hair or hair loss from hepatitis C can be alarming, and most people want to be as proactive as possible so as to reduce the effects of such changes. Some people have found these steps to be helpful in minimizing the loss of hair they experience after being diagnosed and/or while under HCV treatment:

  • Try to wash your hair infrequently – every other day or every third day
  • If you shower daily, consider skipping the shampoo and using only water to rinse hair and scalp – this helps maintain natural moisture and oils on the scalp
  • When shampooing, shampoo twice to clear follicles of all access build-up
  • Use conditioner generously
  • Gently massage your head, neck, shoulders, and the scalp while shampooing and when out of the shower to help increase and improve circulation to the scalp and your hair follicles
  • Use natural, paraben-free shampoos, conditioners, and hair products when possible, making sure to avoid harsh chemical and dyes
  • Get your hair cut often – blunt, layered, short cuts can make thinner hair look fuller
  • Try Nioxin shampoo to help damaged or dry hair
  • Avoid heated styling tools like hair dryers, rollers, and curling irons. If needed, keep them at the lowest possible temperature
  • When towel-drying hair, rub softly, and avoid too much friction
  • Try to avoid styling hair while wet – wait for it to air dry
  • Brush hair lightly with soft bristle brushes or wide tooth combs
  • Protect your hair and scalp from sun damage with sunscreen or hats
  • Avoid teasing hair or using styling products to tease hair
  • Consider eliminating styles that are hard on the hair shaft and can pull additional strands out such as braiding, tight pony tails, or weaves
  • Sleep on satin pillow cases that will reduce friction while you sleep

Consult a physician

Although usually temporary, changes in hair texture and hair loss can greatly impact one’s body image, confidence, sense of self, and overall quality of life. If you’re experience changes in hair texture or loss, always consult with your physician before adapting or adding to your treatment regimen, as your mental health while undergoing treatment is incredibly important. A clinician might be able to suggest psychological, peer-led support groups or make recommendations to help reduce the impact on the changes to your hair and/or the severity of your hair loss from hepatitis C. Sometimes, other medical concerns could be affecting the texture and thickness of your hair that are unrelated to the hepatitis c virus or the HCV therapy, so it’s always key to consult your doctor about any and all concerns first.

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