Diseases & Conditions

Abnormal Hairiness - Excess Body Hair


Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

Excess body hair can occur in certain areas or all over the body.

What is going on in the body?

Excess hair growth is most commonly related to inherited factors and sex hormones. In some cases, body hair is increased by a medical problem, which can be a serious one. There are two main types of excess body hair.

The first type is an abnormal increase of male-pattern hair growth in women. This hair growth is thought to be related to male sex hormones. It occurs on the face, the armpits, the chest, and the groin area. This type of hair growth, called hirsutism, is only abnormal in women.

The second type of excess body hair occurs in areas that are not related to sex hormones. This hair growth can happen anywhere on the body. It can be all over the body, or in just one spot. This type of hair growth, called hypertrichosis, can occur in males or females.

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Hirsutism is most often due to inherited causes. Middle Eastern, Russian, and southern European women often have more hair than women of other ethnic origins. Hirsutism may also be due to hormone imbalances, which can have several causes:

  • polycystic ovary syndrome(PCOS) is a common condition that is often linked with obesity and abnormal menstrual periods
  • Cushing syndrome, a condition in which there is too much of a hormone called corticosteroid in the blood
  • certain tumors that can occur in the pituitary gland, the ovary, and adrenal gland. The pituitary gland is located inside the skull and is attached to the brain. The two adrenal glands are located on top of each kidney. Both glands secrete sex hormones and hormones that are important for metabolism.
  • some medications, such as oral contraceptives, testosterone or steroids, which can cause hormone imbalances
  • Overall excess body hair is also usually inherited. It can also be seen in people who:

  • were born to mothers who drank alcohol, or took a seizure drug called diphenylhydantoin, during the pregnancy
  • take certain medications, such as minoxidil, danazol, corticosteroids, or diphenylhydantoin
  • have an underlying cancer, such as breast cancer or leukemia
  • have chronic inflammation of the skin, such as from eczema, trauma or infection. These individuals may grow excess hair in the affected areas.
  • have anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder in which people starve themselves to become abnormally thin
  • suffer from malnutrition
  • have spina bifida, a birth defect of the spine
  • have skin moles, which can cause local areas of excess hair
  • Excess body hair can cause people to be concerned about their appearance. But the health risks of the condition come from whatever is causing the excess hair. If the cause is cancer, for example, the outcome may be fatal.


    Symptoms & Signs

    What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

    Doctors may ask a number of questions when a person has excess body hair. These questions may include:

  • when the excess body hair started
  • whether there is a family history of excess body hair
  • where the excess hair is located
  • what medications the person takes
  • what other medical conditions the person has
  • what is the person's menstrual cycle like
  • There may also be questions about other symptoms, such as weight loss, headaches, vision changes, or any deepening of the voice in women.


    Diagnosis & Tests

    How is the condition diagnosed?

    The healthcare provider will help to make sure there is no serious cause for excess hair growth. In most cases, this can be done after a history and physical exam. If the hair growth has been gradual and started in the teen years, and there are no other symptoms, serious causes can almost certainly be ruled out.

    Tests may be needed if the hair growth came on suddenly before puberty, started after age 25, or there are other worrisome symptoms. Examples of worrisome symptoms are unintended weight loss or deepening of the voice in a woman. These symptoms may be a sign that cancer is present. Blood tests are often done to check hormone levels. Other tests may be needed, such as a cranial CT if a pituitary tumor is suspected.


    Prevention & Expectations

    What can be done to prevent the condition?

    Most cases cannot be prevented. Pregnant women should not drink alcohol. People may want to avoid medications that are known to cause excess body hair.

    What are the long-term effects of the condition?

    Excess body hair may cause embarrassment, especially in the teen years. In most cases, there are no long-term effects and appearance is the only concern. The long-term effects are related to the cause. If cancer or a tumor is the cause, serious disability or even death may result. Children born to mothers who drank alcohol may have other birth defects and learning disabilities.

    What are the risks to others?

    This condition is not contagious and poses no risk to others.


    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the condition?

    There are many ways to remove excess hair. These include shaving, waxing, and bleaching, which often need to be repeated. Electrolysis permanently destroys hair follicles with electricity. If inherited factors are the cause, no other treatment is needed, and most people choose no treatment at all.

    Other causes of excess hair need to be treated. People with tumors or cancer may need surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. People with drug-induced hair growth may want to stop taking the drug. People with anorexia nervosa usually need psychotherapy. Women with polycystic ovary syndrome are often given oral contraceptives for treatment.

    What are the side effects of the treatments?

    Bleaching, waxing, and electrolysis may irritate the skin. All medications can have side effects. For example, oral contraceptives can cause nausea, bloating, and an increased risk of blood clots such as deep venous thrombosis. Other side effects depend on the drugs used. Surgery carries a risk of infection and bleeding.

    What happens after treatment for the condition?

    Individual outcomes depend on the cause of the excess body hair and the treatment given. If excess body hair is inherited, people who get electrolysis are "cured." People who choose to shave or wax the areas may need to repeat these treatments for life.

    If there is another underlying cause, the treatment and its after-effects depend on the cause.

    How is the condition monitored?

    People can monitor their body hair and the response to treatment at home. More monitoring may be needed for an underlying cause.


    Attribution

    Author:Adam Brochert, MD
    Date Written:
    Editor:Duff, Ellen, BA
    Edit Date:06/28/00
    Reviewer:Eric Berlin, MD
    Date Reviewed:06/06/01

    Sources

    Dermatology in General Medicine, 1987, Fitzpatrick et al.

    Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.