What Is Hirsutism?

Hirsutism is the presence male-pattern hair growth in women. Women diagnosed with hirsutism grow dark, coarse hair in places where men typically grow hair like on the upper lip, chin, stomach, back, or chest. Hirsutism is a medical condition mainly caused by heightened levels of certain hormones, primarily testosterone. It often runs in the family. A combination of medical and cosmetic therapies can help affected women.

What is hirsutism?

Hirsutism (pronounced hur-soo-tism) affects women from all walks of life. While not life-threatening or dangerous in itself, women diagnosed with the condition often experience their bodies in a negative way, which can lead to social and psychological stress and problems.. About 5% – 10% of women are affected by hirsutism.

Hair growth differs from person to person. Hirsutism essentially affects the cycle of human hair growth and causes the transformation of small, fine hair (“peach-fuzz” or vellus hair) to larger, pigmented hair. This process usually starts during puberty in women suffering from hirsutism and continues throughout her reproductive life and often beyond. During childhood most hair except eyebrows, eyelashes or scalp hair is vellus hair. Hormones like testosterone cause soft vellus hair to grow into stronger, dark hair in certain areas during puberty. Those areas include underarm areas, pubic area and to a lesser extent the limbs. Dark, coarse hair in areas beyond those can be an indicator for hirsutism. For a definite diagnosis a medical professional should always be consulted.

What causes hirsutism?

Hirsutism can be caused by genes, hormones, or medication. In the majority of cases, it is a result of excess androgens such as testosterone in females. While it is normal for a woman to have small amounts of testosterone, a hormonal imbalance and increased level of androgens can cause male pattern hair growth. In case of “idiopathic hirsutism”, there is no identifiable cause. It is usually chronic and often comes with only mild symptoms.


Hirsutism often runs in the family. If a mother has hirsutism, the daughter is more likely to get the condition as well. It is also more common in women from Asia, the Mediterranean or the Middle East.


Hirsutism is often linked to high levels of androgens. Above average levels of those male hormones (e.g. testosterone) can be responsible for male-pattern hair growth. The hormones can also cause acne. High levels of androgens can be a result of various medical conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), Cushing’s syndrome, tumors in your adrenal glands, or other endocrine conditions (e.g. acromegaly, prolactinoma, thyroid or congenital adrenal hyperplasia).


Some drugs can cause a rise of male hormones and are linked to excess hair growth. Those include anabolic steroids, hair growth drugs, and a drug called Danocrine, which is prescribed to treat endometriosis.

How is hirsutism diagnosed?

Generally speaking excess hair growth or a change in the texture of the hair could be an indication for hirsutism. Other symptoms sometimes include oily hair and acne.

As mentioned hirsutism can have various causes. In order to understand what causes male-pattern hair growth, several blood tests will be performed in order to measure hormone levels. An ultrasound scan of the abdomen may also be required. The aim is to understand what causes the excess testosterone in the the system. It is important to understand whether the hirsutism is idiopathic or is caused by another condition. Around 90% of cases can be traced back to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or are of idiopathic origin. In many cases, there is also a family history.

Hirsutism is considered a rather common conditions, that affects around 5% – 10% of women. The severity of the symptoms can differ greatly from woman to woman. The Ferriman-Gallwey score is sometimes used to determine the severity of the condition.

How is hirsutism treated?

How Hirsutism is treated depends on its root cause. If the excessive hair-growth is caused by polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), it can be treated with drugs that reduce the body’s effective testosterone, like the contraceptive pill. Spironolactone or finasteride block the impact of testosterone and are sometimes prescribed as an alternative. It can take several months for the treatment to take effect.

In order to decrease the social and psychological impact of hirsutism, cosmetic treatments are often recommended and seeking the advice of a dermatologist is encouraged. Different options include shaving, depilatory creams, waxing, sugaring, electrolysis and laser hair removal, which is becoming increasingly popular with women suffering from the condition.

Some women have also seen success with natural remedies such as spearmint tea. Weight loss is recommended for obese women in order to reduce excess hair growth. Some also use the medicated cream Eflornithine to reduce hair growth in the face.

If left untreated, the cosmetic symptoms can lead to psychological problems like depression and anxiety.

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