What is hirsutism?

In these body conscious times, something as innocuous as a little extra body or facial hair can be seen as a flaw to be condemned by the fashion magazines. However, it is worth remembering that we humans are mammals and all mammals are covered with body hair.

But while sprouting nose and ear hair often goes ignored in men, the development of facial or body hair can be quite traumatic for women, especially pubescent girls.

Different cultures have differing attitudes to female body hair - the trend towards 'body baldness' in California has yet to catch on in Ireland, whereas the unshaved armpit, so common on the Continent, is the exception rather than the rule here.

A woman may feel she is more hairy than her friends, when in fact it is simply that her hair grows darker and thicker, which makes it more noticeable. A depilatory cream applied to the legs and bikini line, or a mild bleaching treatment to the upper lip, can often work wonders.

However, there is a condition where the female body begins to produce excessive growth of facial or body hair. This is known as hirsutism. Hirsutism usually develops during puberty, though certain illnesses or medical treatments can cause it to occur at any stage in life. The condition is often genetic, or else related to hormonal changes within the body.

Where does the excess hair come from and why?

There are two types of hirsutism, known as idiopathic hirsutism and secondary hirsutism. When a woman develops either type of hirsutism, her hair follicles enlarge and the hairs become darker and thicker.

Idiopathic hirsutism

Idiopathic means that the cause of the condition is not completely known. It is suspected that this type of hirsutism may be hereditary, as there is often a family history of the condition. Other than the excessive growth of hair, women with this type of hirsutism show none of the symptoms associated with the other type of hirsutism.

Secondary hirsutism

Women with secondary hirsutism often present with irregular menstrual cycles. Occasionally, the growth of excessive hair is one of a series of 'masculine' traits that the woman may develop, including smaller breasts, larger muscles and a deeper voice than normal. The development of such male traits is thought to be due to an over-production of male hormones known as androgens.

Secondary hirsutism is often associated with a hormonal disorder called polycystic ovarian syndrome, which can also cause obesity and very irregular menstrual cycles. It can also be caused by the medical use of male hormones, or by certain glandular malfunctions.

If a woman experiences excessive hair growth along with abnormal menstrual cycles, she should consult her GP. The use of the birth control pill may be able to stabilise both conditions.

How can I safely have excess hair removed?

There are many methods for cosmetically removing excess hair from the body and face, including shaving, depilatory creams, waxing, sugaring, plucking, electrolysis and laser epilation.

Any woman wishing to pursue a course of electrolysis or laser epilation ought to consult her GP first. If excessive hair growth is due to a type of hirsutism, this can be treated with a range of medical therapies (oral tablets and topical creams), which help to inhibit or block the hair growth process. There are hormonal and non-hormonal therapies available.

While these treatments can manage the condition, they do not offer a cure and hair growth will return when they are stopped. Your doctor can advise the best course of treatment for you.

Reviewed: July 31, 2006