I am a 45-year-old woman about to start a series of chemotherapy and I’m worried about losing my hair as a side effect of the treatment. Is there anything that can be done to avoid it? I read something on the Internet about scalp cooling. Can you tell me more about this?
Catherine Barnfield, Lead Oncology Nurse, Spire Leeds Hospital
Sorry to hear that you need to have chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy commonly causes hair to fall out, which can be distressing. Chemotherapy treatment affects rapidly dividing cells (like cancer cells) and human hair follicles are also rapidly dividing cells. Scalp cooling works by reducing the temperature of the head and scalp during chemotherapy, which reduces the blood flow (and therefore the amount of chemotherapy) to the hair follicles and as a result hair is less likely to fall out. This can help improve patients’ self confidence.
There are two types of cold caps; One involves using frozen gel-filled hats, which are heavy to wear but you are usually free to walk about once your chemotherapy has been given. Your hat will need to be changed every 20–40 minutes to keep your scalp cool. The other type uses a cold cap attached to a cooling machine, so you can't walk about freely but the cap can be disconnected for short periods of time if necessary.
These caps do not need to be changed, as the machine keeps the cap cool. If you are having your chemotherapy as an out-patient, you may need to spend up to one and a half hours longer at the hospital for each treatment to gain the full benefit from scalp cooling.
Scalp cooling can be very effective in preventing or reducing the loss of your hair. Despite scalp cooling, you may find that your hair thins slightly. Unfortunately, some people who have scalp cooling will also still lose their hair.
Any hair loss caused by chemotherapy is almost always temporary, and once the treatment is over, your hair will start to grow back. At first, the hair is very fine, but you will probably have a full head of hair after 3–6 months.
If you are interested in scalp cooling, please discuss this with your doctor or nurse, who can advise whether it is suitable for you.