The main cultural message we get about our tresses is that we should only worry about our hair when it is dry, dull, or somehow doesn't resemble the the spilling, glowing mane of women in ads (Yep, unrealistic hair beauty standards, I see you.) But hair can be an indicator of health, and not just of underlying health conditions. There are specific disorders related to the scalp and follicles that deserve to be widely known, so you don't look in the mirror, see scaling/baldness/white spots, and immediately panic. It's all good. You're going to be fine. Remember: dandruff isn't the only thing that can go awry on our scalps.
It's also necessary to point out that all these conditions occur regardless of hair length; you likely won't be protected by a pixie cut, or more vulnerable if you're hauling around a full plait down to your waist. It turns out that the health of our hair follicles, which have their own life cycle, is related to our immune systems and general vulnerability to infection, and that they can be targeted by specific conditions and funguses. Even though hair itself is dead, the scalp from which it grows is very much alive, and needs to be attended to.
So here are five symptoms in your follicles and hair that you shouldn't ignore. It may be your crowning glory, but it can also be a litmus test that things aren't quite right.
1. Sudden Loss Of Hair
This is an interesting one, but there's not much a doctor can really do about it. It's called telogen effluvium, and it sounds vaguely like some kind of folk myth: it means that all your hair loosens or falls out after a severe shock or fright. But the British Association Of Dermatologists assures us that telogen effluvium is a real thing, and can lead to a 30 percent increase in your normal hair loss rate, or even more.
Essentially, telogen effluvium means that there is a huge rise in the number of dormant hair follicles on the head or body, with "dormant" meaning that they're not actually producing any hair. This rise in the telogen state means a lot of hair suddenly loosens and sheds. The causes are often, essentially, shocks to the system. The American Osteopathic College Of Dermatology names several: "high fevers, childbirth, severe infections, severe chronic illness, severe psychological stress, major surgery or illnesses, over or under active thyroid gland, crash diets with inadequate protein, and a variety of medications." The systemic pressure and stress caused by these events seems to cause a shift in the normal hair cycle in the scalp of some people, though the specifics of the syndrome are not really understood in much detail.
The treatment for this kind of difficulty depends on its cause. If the shock was environmental, then the hair will likely grow back eventually; if it's down to a medication or an underlying condition, then treatment will need to focus on managing your health rather than on your scalp per se.
2. Patches Of Scaling On The Scalp
Bear with me, because we're about to get slightly gross. If you have patches of skin on your scalp that seem scaly and rough, you're likely suffering from a fungal infection of the scalp known as ringworm. (I know, I know, I'm scratching at phantom itches now, too.) It's transferred from person to person via combs, brushes, shared towels or furniture, and mainly shows up as small, scaly patches across the scalp, some of which may actually go bald.
The technical term for this problem is tinea capitis, and the scaly parts on a sufferer's scalp may be exceptionally itchy. The fortunate news is that it's easily treatable; it's usually medicated with a combination of fungal medications and a medicated shampoo to soothe and help the healing of the scalp. Also, obviously, if you have ringworm, you should wash every towel and sheet in your house, so nobody else gets it. Hey, doing an extra load of laundry's better than dealing with a scaly head.
3. Bald Patches
Patches of baldness that appear without any other symptoms can be a sign of a variety of conditions, but they often point to alopecia areata, a specific kind of the hair-loss disorder alopecia whose primary symptom is patchy baldness. The disorder isn't on your scalp, though — it's actually a difficulty within your immune system; it means that your body has mistaken your hair follicles for invasive threats and is attacking them accordingly, prompting hair loss.
The good news is that alopecia areata seems to be temporary for 90 percent of sufferers; after the initial episodes, which often occur during the teens and twenties for people of all genders, the hair is likely to regrow.
Here's another thing worth remember: it's also very common. The National Alopecia Areata Association estimates that a whopping 147 million people worldwide have or will experience the illness at some point in their lives. The American Academy of Dermatology emphasizes in its alopecia areata material that it's not contagious or "caused by nerves;" the treatments are designed to target autoimmune difficulties, including cortisone injections and various other steroid medications.
4. The Urge To Pull Out Your Hair
This is a psychological difficulty rather than a physical one, but it's one that needs to be quickly attended to if you notice it as a pattern in your behavior. Trichotillomania, or the obsessive urge to pull out your own hair (including eyelashes, eyebrows and scalp hair), is classified as an "impulse control disorder," alongside such behavior disorders as obsessive-compulsive disorder. It's rare, and is only believed to be suffered by about 0.6 percent of the global population, according to OCD UK.
The Mayo Clinic describes the potential causes of trichotillomania as "unclear," but comments that it's likely a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Like other body-focused repetitive behaviors, it may be a way of coping with severe stress or anxiety, feed into addictive patterns in the brain, or be related to genetics. Interestingly, research mentioned by the TLC Foundation (which supports people with body-focused repetitive behaviors) highlights the fact that trichotillomania isn't just a human compulsion; it's also found in animals, particularly those in stressed, confined or dangerous situations. Therapy is recommended as the main course of treatment, so if you've noticed you're comforted by pulling out your own hair on a regular basis, take comfort: you're not crazy.
5. White Or Black Spots On The Hair
This is an interesting one: when we normally think about white spots on our heads, we go immediately to dandruff. But there's another condition that causes white, brown and black spots on hair: piedra. It's classified as a "superficial fungal infection of the hair shaft" by Medscape, and comes in both black and white varieties, both of which leave "spots" on the hair of the scalp, pubic area, beards, moustaches and eyelashes.
Piedra isn't harmful, and the two different shades are associated with different underlying conditions. The fungus responsible for white piedra, trichosporon, has been found in infections in people with lowered immune systems: the University of Adelaide names patients with "leukaemia, organ transplantation, multiple myeloma, aplastic anaemia, lymphoma, solid tumours and AIDS" as particularly vulnerable. Black piedra, meanwhile, is most common in tropical countries. Treatment has traditionally consisted of shaving the entire head, but it's now believed that antifungal medications might mean that's not necessary if it's caught early enough.
The main (or mane? Sorry, had to) thing to keep in mind: though it may just seem decorative, hair is part of our body, and thus, it can be a very serious indicator of our health.
Images: Pixabay, Giphy