Hirsutism is excessive female hair growth on various parts of the body. The hair is usually coarse, dark, and appears on the face, chest, and back. It can be caused by a hormonal imbalance that causes the overproduction of male androgens such as testosterone. As well, sometimes hair follicles can be overly sensitive to testosterone even in normal amounts. Genetics and ethnicity are another reason for hirsutism, as certain ethnic groups tend to have more body hair than others. It is not unusual for women of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or South Asian heritage to have hirsutism.
Your doctor can assess if there is a potential cause or if there is no identifiable underlying reason (idiopathic hirsutism). Testing may include a physical exam, blood tests to measure androgen levels, and imaging to examine ovaries and adrenal glands for abnormalities.
Some conditions marked by high androgen levels include:
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is caused by hormonal imbalance and is the most common underlying medical reason for hirsutism. Symptoms include irregular periods, obesity, infertility, ovarian cysts and hirsutism.
- Cushing’s syndrome is a condition where the adrenals produce too much cortisol (a steroid hormone) in response to stress. High levels of cortisol can affect the levels of other sex hormones.
- In more rare cases, tumours may be present in the ovaries or adrenal glands, and these can produce androgens.
Options for dealing with unwanted hair are usually hair removal, or lightening the hair colour to make it less visible. If the underlying cause of the hirsutism is related to hormones, medications such as oral contraceptives or anti-androgens may help to control excess hair growth. As well, topical products may be prescribed to slow the cycle of hair growth. For more information on hirsutism, ask your doctor, or check the links below.