Unwanted or excessive hair that grows on the body or face of women is a condition known as hirsutism. All women have hair on their bodies and faces, but it is usually lightly coloured and very fine, with the texture being the main difference in the quality of the hair in women suffering from hirsutism.
The unwanted or excessive hair that grows on the arms, back, chest or face of women with hirsutism is normally dark and coarse, a growth pattern that is generally associated with virilisation, and women suffering from the condition often have characteristics that are more commonly associated with male hormones. Although hirsutism is not dangerous, the presence of such excessive body hair can cause considerable social embarrassment and self-consciousness in women, and in some cases health can be compromised by the hormonal balance responsible for the condition.
Women can develop excessive facial or body hair as a result of higher levels of androgens, such as testosterone, than is usually the case. Androgens are produced by all women, but usually in low levels. There are also a number of medical conditions that can result in too many androgens being produced in women, which can be responsible for male characteristics including a deeper voice, as well as male pattern hair growth.
Another common cause of hirsutism is polycystic ovarian syndrome, which is believed to account for up to 75 percent of all cases. Hormone production can be affected by benign cysts that are formed on the ovaries, resulting in decreased fertility and irregular menstrual cycles. Women suffering from polycystic ovarian syndrome have a tendency to be overweight and suffer from acne, with additional symptoms including the likes of:
- Mood changes
- Pain in the pelvis
- Sleeping problems
Adrenal gland disorders can also cause excessive hair growth; these include:
- Adrenal tumours
- Cushing’s disease
- Adrenal cancer
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia
The adrenal glands are situated just above the kidneys and are responsible for the production of hormones. People who suffer from congenital adrenal hyperplasia were born without the presence of the enzyme that is needed for the production of hormones, while people who suffer from Cushing’s disease have higher levels of cortisol, which is sometimes referred to as the “stress hormone”. The way in which androgens are produced by the body can be affected by all of these different conditions, symptoms of which can include:
- Weakness in the bones and muscles
- High blood pressure
- Excessive weight in the upper parts of the body
- Low or high blood sugar levels
Medications such as minoxidil, testosterone, anabolic steroids and cyclosporine can also result in excessive hair growth on the face or body. Idiopathic hirsutism may also be experienced by women in some instances. This can be chronic and more difficult to treat as there is rarely a detectable cause for the development of the condition.
There are a number of methods by which women suffering from hirsutism can treat or manage their condition. Doctors will probably suggest to those who are overweight that they may be able to reduce their hair growth by losing weight, as obesity can have an impact on the way in which hormones are produced and processed by the body, and the level of androgens may be corrected without the need for medication by simply achieving and maintaining a healthier weight.
However if the hirsutism is the result of adrenal disorders or PCOS, then medical treatment is likely to be required. Hormone levels can be balanced with the use of drug therapy such as anti-androgen medications and birth control pills. Combination birth control pills contain both progesterone and oestrogen, and may assist with shrinking cysts caused by PCOS.
Excess hair can also be reduced by oestrogen. Improvement is likely to be noticed after three to six months of treatment, and these drugs are normally required to be used long term. Anti-androgen medications reduce the production of androgens from the pituitary glands, adrenal glands and ovaries, and block androgen receptors. The growth of facial hair can also be reduced by the use of Vaniqa cream, while non-medical solutions include techniques such as laser hair removal, electrolysis, shaving, waxing and depilatories.