Chemotherapy and Hair Loss

Chemotherapy and hair loss
Photo from NCI Bill Branson photographer

If your child has cancer and is about to begin chemotherapy, they may very likely experience hair lose.  Unfortunately, chemotherapy and hair loss tend to go hand and hand. And for a lot of kids, especially teen agers, hair loss can be one of the most difficult and devastating side effects of treatment.

Losing hair takes away cancer anonymity. It’s like an emoji to the world that a person has cancer. And while some kids are able to take it in stride, it can be pretty distressing for others. Especially if a child isn’t comfortable sharing the news.

So — Why Does Chemotherapy and Hair Loss Happen?

Chemotherapy kills cells that grow fast, like cancer. The problem is that some normal healthy cells grow fast too, like hair cells. So, the chemotherapy that kills cancer cells can also kill normal hair cells. The good news is that the normal hair cells will repair themselves, making hair loss temporary.

How Much Hair is Lost Depends Upon Your Child’s Treatment

Chemotherapy can cause hair loss all over the body – not just the scalp. So, don’t be surprised if your child loses their eyelashes, eyebrows or other body hair. The amount of hair that your child may lose ranges from just a small amount to severe thinning, to total baldness. Typically, hair loss begins several weeks after the first or second chemotherapy treatment. Every child is different so this varies from child to child. Your child’s hair may begin by gradually thinning before falling out faster and in larger clumps.

However, not all chemotherapy medications cause the loss or thinning of hair. Whether or not your child’s hair remains, thins or falls out completely, depends on the drugs used and their dosages. Ask your child’s health care team if your child’s particular treatment will cause hair loss. 

Tips to Help Your Child Cope With Hair Loss

There are a few tips that can help your child prepare for chemotherapy related hair loss.

  • First, make sure that your child understands that hair loss is only temporary and their hair will grow back.
  • It may be helpful to have your child talk with a member of their health care team about hair loss.
  • Discuss with your child how they want to handle their hair loss so they feel like they have some control.
  • You may want to suggest a short haircut before hair starts falling out. This may help minimize the shock of hair loss.
  • Feeling good about how they look is important to most kids. So go shopping together to pick out hats, scarves or bandanas that your child likes and feels comfortable wearing.
  • If you child wants to wear a wig, have it made before the hair loss. Ask your doctor for a “prescription” for a wig.  Many health care companies will cover the cost of a wig if a doctor prescribes it.

What Else You Can Do While the Hair is Thinning and Falling Out

  • Your child may want to wear a bandanna or cap at night. This helps collect the fallen hair and keeps it off the pillow and sheets which can be itchy and upsetting to see.
  • Wash hair less often and use a gentle moisturizing shampoo and conditioner to help with dryness and itchiness.
  • Don’t shave your child’s head with a razor.  This can cause small cuts on the scalp, which could lead to bleeding and infection.
  • Don’t use curling irons, blow dryers or curlers.
  • Use a brush with very soft bristles when the hair is thinning or breaking.
  • Use a wide-toothed comb, not a brush on wet hair.
  • If your child decides to wear a wig, they should take it off for a while each day to let the skin on the head breath.
  • Once all the hair has fallen out, your child may want to try using a satin pillowcase to avoid friction against the scalp.

Helpful Resources

For more helpful tips on how to help your child cope with cancer treatment, visit our blog and look specifically for our category Parent to Parent.