Hair loss and smoking

August 03, 2018 17:15
Scientists have long speculated cigarette smoke may accelerate hair loss. Photo: Reuters

Ming-wah came in while tucking a packet of chewing gum into his pocket. It has been his third relapse. I knew he was taking a cigarette break again, judging from his appalling breath.

Last year, he had a bad break-up and was upset for quite a long time. Later his hairstylist told him about a bald spot, the size of a coin, behind his ear.

I checked his scalp and found that the hair follicles at the bald area were shrinking while the hair nearby stopped growing as well, meaning that Ming-wah was in a medical condition called alopecia areata.

Alopecia areata can develop within a few weeks, when a certain part of the hair suddenly falls out due to immunity and environmental factors.

When hair loss from alopecia areata becomes obvious it is time for professional treatment.

Fortunately, most cases are not induced by other diseases. Only in rare cases are the patients also having immune system diseases such as thyroid illnesses or Type 2 diabetes.

That said, patients can focus on treating alopecia areata through steroid injection, hair growth promoters and so on. With proper treatment, hair will usually start growing back after eight to 10 weeks of intervention.

Recent studies have suggested that hair can be placed under a mechanism dubbed as “immune privilege”, where a hair string falls out once it loses its protection.

An analogy could be like a foreign traveler would need a visa to stay in the United States, where they would get expelled if they no longer have the valid document.

Stress can lead to the collapse of the immune privilege and is the most common cause of alopecia areata. People nowadays care most about their work, career, relationships and personal finances.

To Ming-wah, relationship break-up was his biggest cause of pain. Every time he had a broken heart, he would have a small patch of hair loss.

I tried to talk him out of smoking, not just for reducing bad breath but also for the sake of his hair.

Harmful chemicals in the cigarette can damage the DNA, ecology and growth cycle of hair, making it harder to cure the hair loss problem.

Reports also show that tobacco smoke causes oxidative stress that damages the growth of stem cells in hair follicles, with nicotine greatly hindering the blood circulation in the scalp.

E-cigarette, in particular, does significant damage to the epidermal cells. So there you go, a new reason to quit smoking -- not just for the lungs, but for the hair.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 16

Translation by John Chui

[Chinese version 中文版]

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FHKAM (Medicine)