Dry and patchy hair
Red flag #5: Dry, brittle hair that breaks off easily
What it means: When individual hairs litter your pillow in the morning, this typically indicates breakage rather than hair falling out from the follicle, says Chicago dermatologist Victoria Barbosa. Breakage is most frequently the result of hair becoming over-brittle from chemical processing or dyeing. "Bleaching, straightening, and other chemical processing techniques strip the cuticle to let the chemicals in, which makes the hair shaft more fragile," Barbosa explains.
However, certain health conditions also lead to brittle, fragile hair. Among them: Cushing's syndrome, a disorder of the adrenal glands that causes excess production of the hormone cortisol. A condition called hypoparathyroidism, usually either hereditary or the result of injury to the parathyroid glands during head and neck surgery, can also cause dry, brittle hair. Overly low levels of parathyroid hormone cause blood levels of calcium to fall and phosphorus to rise, leading to fragile dry hair, scaly skin, and more serious symptoms such as muscle cramps and even seizures.
More clues: If the cause of your dry, brittle hair is an underlying health condition, you'll likely notice additional symptoms, such as dry, flaky skin. Overly dry hair also can signify that your diet is lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in salmon and fish oil, as well as many nuts and seeds, particularly flaxseed.
What to do: No matter what the cause of your dry, brittle hair, minimizing heat and chemical treatment are necessary for it to get healthy again. If an underlying condition is throwing your hormones out of whack and in turn affecting your hair, talk to your doctor. The symptoms of hypoparathyroidism, for example, are often reduced or eliminated with supplemental vitamin D and calcium.
Next, deep condition your hair to restore it to health. Hair oils can help restore flexibility to the hair shaft, Barbosa says; look for products made with natural oils such as coconut and avocado oil, which penetrate the cuticle, rather than synthetic oils made from petrolatum, which merely coat the hair. Take fish oil supplements to renourish your hair. And minimize breakage while you sleep by replacing cotton pillowcases, which tend to catch and pull at hair, with satin pillowcases, which are smoother.
Red Flag #6: Hair falling out in small, circular patches
What it means: The body's immune response turns on the hair follicles themselves, shrinking them and causing hair to fall out entirely in small, typically round patches. This kind of hair loss -- which experts call alopecia areata -- can also occur at the temples or at the part line. Diabetes can trigger the onset of such hair loss in some people. And it can continue to spread; in extreme cases, sufferers lose all their hair or lose hair over their entire body.
More clues: Alopecia areata can also cause the eyebrows or eyelashes to fall out, which in addition to the circular pattern can distinguish it from other types of hair loss. Alopecia areata is an autoimmune condition and has been shown to be more common in families with a tendency toward other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, early-onset diabetes, and thyroid disease.
What to do: The treatment most proven to work against alopecia areata is cortisone shots delivered directly into the scalp in the spots where the hair is falling out. "If you don't get steroid injections, the circular patches will get larger and more cosmetically noticeable," says California dermatologist Raphael Darvish.
Oral forms of cortisone and topical cortisone creams are also available, but topical cortisone is less likely to be successful unless it's a mild case. Many doctors will also suggest using minoxidil (brand name Rogaine) to speed the rate of regrowth. Treatment may need to be repeated a number of times over a period of months.