Unwanted Hair During Pregnancy: Hirsutism

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Every woman wants a nice head of thick hair. What they don’t want is coarse dark hair on their arms, legs, stomach, or face. A woman with a heavy beard was once a person who was considered a freak, someone who could earn a living at a sideshow.

Nowadays, a woman with a beard can keep it if she wants to, shave it, wax, or get rid of it in some other way. But she should also work with her doctor to determine why she has hirsutism, which is the term for excess hair growth, especially hair growing in a male-like pattern on the face, chest, and abdomen.

Mild hirsutism is not uncommon. About 5% to 10% of women have some extra hair growth, according to the Endocrine Society.

Causes

Hirsutism is usually caused by high levels of male hormones called androgens. If a woman has high androgen levels, she may also develop other traits like a deepening voice, hair loss on the scalp, acne, and increased muscle mass, all of which can be symptoms of virilization, another word for masculinization. However, hirsutism can develop in a woman without any of those traits linked to virilization.

What looks like excessive hair growth can also run in families. A more prominent amount of body hair is more common in women who have dark brown or black hair since it is more visible than light colored hair.

One of the most common causes of excessive hair growth is polycystic ovary syndrome, also called PCOS. Other conditions that can cause hirsutism include Cushing syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia (which can mimic PCOS), and, rarely, tumors that develop in the ovaries or adrenal glands and that secrete androgens. Medications such as minoxidil or anabolic steroids can also cause hirsutism. Some women have experienced hirsutism when their male partner was using a topical testosterone product that then rubbed off onto them. However, some cases of hirsutism have no known cause.

Mild hirsutism is not uncommon. About 5% to 10% of women have some extra hair growth, according to the Endocrine Society.

Hirsutism and Pregnancy

Pregnancy can also cause some extra hair growth. Many women start sprouting some coarse hair on their abdomen as the pregnancy progresses. This hair may grow in the pattern of a stripe down the center of the abdomen, but some women may start growing some extra hair on the arms, face, and chest.

This extra hair growth may not be lovely, but it is harmless and usually goes away after you give birth. There is a folk belief that growing extra hair during pregnancy means that you are carrying a boy, but there is nothing to back up this idea.

Diagnosis

If you are worried about excessive hair growth, see your doctor. The first step will probably be to take blood samples that measure levels of hormones in your blood, especially levels of androgens. Your doctor may also perform a pelvic exam and/or an ultrasound to look for tumors or cysts on your ovaries or in your abdomen.

Treatment

If you have excessive hair growth and don’t have any underlying causes such as PCOS, you can remove the hair you don’t want by shaving, plucking, waxing, or using a depilatory cream. Another way to remove hair is by killing the hair follicles that produce hair. This can be done by either laser treatments or electrolysis. Or you can just live with the extra hair if it isn’t bothering you.

However, if the excess hair growth bothers you, speak with your doctor. There are ways to treat hirsutism with medications. Oral contraceptives are an effective first choice for many women. Another option are antiandrogen drugs that block androgen in the body. Antiandrogens might be used if several months of oral contraceptives have not worked. There is also a topical cream that can be used to slow hair growth on the face.

If you choose to use medications, understand that they usually take several months to work, so don’t expect quick results.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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