If you have cancer, losing your hair to chemotherapy may be a top concern. Chemotherapy drugs target cells that grow and divide quickly. This includes both cancer cells and hair follicle cells, which is why the same chemotherapy that attacks your cancer cells can also make your hair fall out. But what if there were a way to limit chemotherapy-related hair loss? For some patients, wearing a cooling cap during chemotherapy can help protect their hair.
What Is a Cooling Cap?
A cooling cap system consists of a helmet-like headpiece attached to a hose and machine. This computer-controlled system circulates cold fluid over your scalp at each chemotherapy appointment. The machine cools the liquid to slightly above freezing.
The ice-cold liquid and pressure from the cap make the blood vessels in your scalp constrict. As the blood vessels shrink, less chemo can reach the hair follicles. The result: Many patients with cancer experience less hair loss.
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Can Cooling Caps Prevent Hair Loss?
Cooling cap systems have received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means FDA scientists have reviewed manufacturers’ product claims and found them valid. But cooling caps have some limitations.
Here are the key things you should know about cooling caps:
- They are most effective when used with taxane-based chemotherapies. These are commonly used with cancers of the breast, ovary, prostate, and lung, among others. Greater than 70% of patients on taxane-based cancer therapies retain their hair.
- Anthracycline-based chemotherapies, commonly used in blood cancers and some breast cancers, also respond to cooling caps. Roughly 40% of cancer patients taking anthracyclines for cancer retain their hair.
When possible, you’ll want to begin scalp cooling on your first chemotherapy appointment. That’s because even one chemo treatment can be enough to trigger hair loss.
For maximum efficacy, plan on extra time to wear the cooling cap at each chemo treatment. You’ll need to wear the cap during your infusion, plus up to 45 minutes before and 60-90 minutes after treatment.
Are There Potential Side Effects from Using a Cooling Cap?
There are no known long-term risks of using a cooling cap. Common side effects from using a cooling cap during chemo include:
- Numbness of the scalp.
- Neck and shoulder discomfort.
Any side effects should stop when you remove the cooling cap. Your provider may suggest using an over-the-counter pain reliever to ease discomfort. UPMC also offers patients warm blankets, warm beverages, and other amenities to ease any side effects.
How Do I Know If a Cooling Cap Will Help Me?
Cooling caps are not for everyone, but the psychological benefits can be compelling. Cancer treatment-related hair loss is usually temporary, but it can be distressing while it lasts. Keeping most of your hair while going through cancer treatment can be a real boost.
If you’d like to try a cooling cap during chemotherapy, talk to your oncologist during treatment planning. Cooling caps are available at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center s in Harrisburg, Mechanicsburg, and Williamsport.
FDA News Release. FDA clears expanded use of cooling cap to reduce hair loss during chemotherapy. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Link
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About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center
When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.