Treatment Side Effects - Hair Loss

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2017.

Hair loss can occur as a side effect from cancer treatment, mainly as a side effect from some chemotherapy drugs and some targeted therapies. Side effects are different for each drug, and not every person experiences the same side effects.

However, hair loss is a common side effect of several chemotherapy agents used for lung cancer. 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 do people lose hair from cancer treatments?

Chemotherapy drugs work by targeting rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. Because chemotherapy drugs attack all 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.2

Other cancer treatments that may cause hair loss include radiation therapy and some targeted therapies. Radiation therapy, the use of radiation beams to kill cancer cells, can cause hair loss at the location where it is directed on the body. Targeted therapies help block the growth or slow the spread of cancer by interfering with specific molecules 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 with side effects.1,3

When and how does hair loss occur?

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. In addition, 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

How to manage hair loss

Unfortunately, there are no proven ways to prevent hair loss from lung 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 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 an option to cover hair loss. It can be helpful for patients to shop for wigs prior to losing their hair, so the shop can better match the patient’s color and style. Wigs may be covered by health insurance.2

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 percent 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

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