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Definition

Hirsutism is the medical term for excess hair on a woman. It can be described as a male pattern of hair growth or distribution on a female body i.e. in the moustache and beard areas, or occurring more thickly than usual on the limbs. It may be the result of a serious hormonal disorder. British study of 430 normal women there was no hair seen on the upper back or abdomen indicating that the presence of hair in these areas is indeed abnormal. In this study, 10% had hair on their chest, 22% had chin hair, and 49% had hair on the upper lip. Most women with facial hair are classified in this familial or idiopathic category because no disease or underlying hormone imbalance is evident. This hair growth may start with one or two long hairs on the chin or upper lip, and if left alone, the number of heavier hairs increases at a consistent rate throughout the life of the individual. This familial hair growth may accelerate with hormonal changes of pregnancy, childbirth and menopause or during periods of emotional stress.

Causes

Hirsutism is usually caused by an increased sensitivity of the skin to a group of hormones called androgens or increased production of these hormones. Similarly, non-androgen-dependant hair growth occurs with drugs such as phenytoin, diazoxide, minoxidil and cyclosporin.  Iatrogenic hirsutism also occurs after treatment with androgens, or more weakly androgenic drugs such as progestagens or danazol. There are very obvious family and racial differences in hirsutism patients. In some women, the skin is very sensitive to even low levels of androgens and their follicles produce primarily terminal (coarse and dark) hairs. If your mother, grandmother or sister experienced the disorder, then you are at a greater risk of developing it.

Symptoms

A woman with the mildest form of hirsutism may notice significant growth of hair that is mature  on the upper lip, chin, sideburn area, around the nipples or lower abdomen. The excess of thick, often dark, hair may be seen on the face, chest, abdomen and upper back. Women from certain ethnic groups tend to have more body hair than others and for them it may be quite normal to have some hair in these areas. 

Treatment

There is no specific medication for hirsutism though certain medicines may be used for suppression of the production and secretion of androgens in the body.  These include: gluco corticoids, spironolactone and certain birth control pills.

Electrolysis or thermolysis may result in permanent hair loss but it takes time. A small probe is inserted along each hair, and a small electrical or heat discharge destroys the hair. A small area is treated every few weeks. It can be expensive if the area affected is extensive. Unskilled treatment may cause scarring.

Laser hair removal uses a laser light to damage hair follicles so unwanted hair falls out. This also prevents the hair from growing back. You'll probably need multiple laser treatments over a number of weeks, and the results may not be permanent.

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