Because thick, healthy hair is so closely linked to health and beauty, it is understandable that age-related hair loss is very distressing. Fortunately, there are many products that can stop or even reverse hair loss. Though they are a great way for men to retain their hair in old age, these hair loss products come with many concerning side effects. Before you start taking a hair loss treatment, be sure that you thoroughly understand the risks associated with each ingredient.
The Many Different Hair Loss Treatments
When you are trying to learn about the side effects of popular hair loss treatments, it is important to learn a little bit about how they work. Prescription drugs for hair loss are sold under many names, but they all generally contain two types of medication, finasteride and minoxidil. Finasteride is a hair loss medication that is called an alpha reductase inhibitor, and it treats male pattern baldness by blocking the development of certain hormones that cause a lot of hair loss. Minoxidil is a type of medication referred to as a potassium channel opener, and it works by increasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients sent to nourish hair follicles. Finasteride generally only works for men suffering from male pattern baldness, but minoxidil is effective for all types of hair loss among all genders.
There are countless hair loss treatments marketed under many names. Most treatments contain a proprietary mix of vitamins and hair nutrients, but it is only their active ingredient that causes severe side effects. The active ingredient in basically every prescription drug on the market for hair loss is either finasteride or minoxidil, but a few treatments also contain both. Finasteride is frequently sold under the brand names of Proscar and Propecia. The most popular brand name versions of minoxidil include Rogaine, Lipogaine, Regaine, and Loniten. In addition to their brand names, finasteride and minoxidil may also be sold as a generic medication.
The Side Effects of Minoxidil
Generally, minoxidil is quite safe to take, and it is rather rare for people to have side effects. Since minoxidil works by altering blood flow, most of the side effects associated with it are cardiovascular. Minoxidil side effects should not be confused with an allergy to minoxidil. Side effects can happen to anyone and are quite varied while an allergic reaction results in classic allergy symptoms of rashes, difficulty breathing, and facial swelling. Anyone with an allergy to minoxidil should not take it. The primary side effects of minoxidil are:
Skin Problems – An increase in irritated skin is the most common side effect of minoxidil. Skin can look flushed and reddened due to the increased blood flow associated with this medication. It also tends to cause dryness, itchiness, flakiness and scaliness of skin. Keep in mind that these skin issues develop slowly and are much milder than the skin problems caused by an allergy to minoxidil. If a person is having an allergic reaction, they may suddenly develop itchy, inflamed hives and should seek immediate medical treatment.
Increased Body Hair – This is another common side effect because minoxidil effects hair growth over the body. In addition to increased head hair, people can have more facial hair and body hair. Existing hair may become coarser and change color. There is no way to prevent this side effect, but it is not harmful.
Tachycardia – This is an abnormally fast and irregular heartbeat that can sometimes feel like your heart is racing, pounding, or flopping around in the chest. Exercise can trigger these attacks of tachycardia and cause you to exceed your target heart rate. Not everyone with tachycardia notices their change in heart rate, but you may notice chest pain, shortness of breath, and feelings of lightheadedness when it is occurring. Tachycardia can cause many issues, so you should seek medical care as soon as possible if this happens.
Fluid Retention– Taking minoxidil can increase the amount of fluid that a person retains. This causes swelling and bloating throughout the body, but it can be particularly noticeable in the feet, ankles, and calves. In rare cases, patients can also deal with edema, which is fluid retention in the abdominal cavity.
Weight Gain – People taking minoxidil can rapidly gain up to 10 pounds of weight. This normally happens because of an increase in water retention, but some of the extra weight may be due to increased fat as well. Rapid weight gain can cause some health problems, so you may need to talk to your doctor if this happens to you.
Hair Loss – Many patients panic while taking minoxidil because it can result in an initial phase of hair loss. The hair loss happens because hair follicles grow in phases. After a growth phase of several years, the hair follicle rests for a few months, sheds the old hair, and starts to grow a new one. Minoxidil helps to stimulate hair growth by causing follicles in the resting phase to shed hair and immediately start growing new, thicker hair. This shedding typically goes away after the first six to eight weeks of taking the medication.
Numbness – In rare cases, minoxidil is associated with sensations of numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, and facial extremities.
Nausea – Though very uncommon, some patients get an upset stomach after taking minoxidil. This can occasionally result in stomach discomfort and vomiting.
Headaches – Roughly six percent of people who take minoxidil report that they suffer from headaches. It is unclear if the minoxidil itself is actually causing headaches, but this may be likely since increased bloodflow to the skull can cause mild headaches.
Pseudoacromegaly – Pseudoacromegaly is a form of excessive growth that causes enlarged hands and feet, a bulging forehead, a protruding jaw, thicker skin, and larger facial features. Though very rare, a few cases of pseudoacromegaly have resulted among patients who took excessive amounts of minoxidil for several years. This side effect only happens when people take abnormally high doses of minoxidil, so you should always make sure you only take the recommended amount.
The Side Effects of Finasteride
Since finasteride has been used to treat hair loss for even longer than minoxidil has, there is more information about the long term side effects of finasteride. Studies have found that side effects for finasteride are generally worse right when starting treatment or after several years of taking it. Though finasteride side effects are generally quite rare, there are some increased health risks associated with using finasteride. Patients with an allergy to finasteride may not experience the typical side effects, but they will generally have hives, swelling of the face and throat, and trouble breathing. The most common side effects of finasteride are:
Erectile Dysfunction – Because finasteride works by lowering levels of dihydrotestosterone, a male sexual hormone, it tends to cause quite a few issues with intercourse. Men who take finasteride may have more difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection. Studies of this effect have found erectile dysfunction occurs at rates of between 5 to 15 percent among subjects. If you experience this side effect, it typically stops once you stop using medicine. However, in rare cases, difficulties can continue for quite some time after you quit finasteride.
Diminished Libido – Finasteride also causes a lowered libido among roughly three to five percent of the men who take the medication. Some of this lowered libido may be due to erectile dysfunction, but it seems to happen spontaneously among some people who take this medication. It is worth noting that a long term study of this side effect found that it went away after a while. After five years of taking finasteride, the rate of men who had a diminished libido was significantly lower. The side effect of diminished libido can last for a few months after a person stops taking finasteride.
Increased Cancer Risk – The FDA has warned consumers that taking finasteride for a while can result in a person increasing their risks of getting high grade prostate cancer. This happens because the medication lowers levels of a prostate specific antigen that otherwise helps to halt cancer growth in the prostate. Finasteride use has also been associated with increased rates of breast cancer among men, but so far, it is unknown whether or not the medication actually causes breast cancer.
Fatigue – Some men who take finasteride experience difficulty sleeping, but others may feel tired, drowsy, or sleepy even when they get adequate sleep.
Lightheadedness – Patients can feel lightheaded, dizzy, woozy, or weak while taking finasteride, especially when getting up after lying down or sitting. This normally goes away quickly, but if it persists or happens again, you should contact your doctor about it. In rare cases, people might feel like they are going to pass out or faint, and you should always seek medical attention if that happens.
Abnormal Swelling – Finasteride has been linked to unusual swelling in many places due to fluid retention. This can occur in the face, lower legs, feet, hands, and lower arms. Sometimes the swelling is severe enough to cause weight gain and change a person’s body mass index. Keep in mind that if the swelling happens rapidly, it is most likely due to an allergic reaction that needs medical attention.
Pain – General aches and pains in the back, stomach, and joints occasionally occurs when taking finasteride. It can also result in headaches.
Gynecomastia – Gynecomastia is a growth in breast tissue among men that happens when hormones are imbalanced. In addition to enlarged breasts, men may experience tenderness in the area, discomfort in the chest, or enlarged nipples. It is not very common among men who take finasteride, but if a patient is already taking other medications that have this side effect, their risk of developing gynecomastia increases.
Diminished Sperm Quality – Though very rare, there has been a reported decrease in sperm amount and sperm motility due to finasteride. The diminished sperm quality is not enough to severely affect fertility in otherwise healthy men, but it may be problematic for those who already have a very low sperm count and want to have children.
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