The Cost of Losing My Hair

Photo credit: Liz West, CC BY 2.0.

One day in May, I was gathering my hair into a ponytail before heading out for a run when I noticed something: there was a band of bald skin running from my ears around the back of my scalp, about three inches high. The skin there was perfectly smooth, with no sign of a rash, but totally devoid of hair. I realized that my hair had been falling out in the shower at a much higher rate the past few weeks, and this must be the result. The upper layer of hair must have covered the bald patches until they were exposed by my high ponytail.

I had never expected to lose my hair, and certainly not at 23. I didn’t know what was happening, since I had no other symptoms. Just sudden, dramatic hair loss.

The following is a timeline of all the money I’ve spent on treating my hair loss:

June

$0: Bottle of hair, skin, and nails gummy vitamins, given to me by my roommate after I mentioned to her that my hair was falling out. They were delicious but didn’t seem to help.

$0: Visit to my primary care provider (covered by insurance). Since my yearly physical was approaching anyway, I decided to bring up the issue with my regular doctor. She told me that my hair loss was most likely due to a condition called alopecia areata, where the immune system attacks the body’s own hair follicles. My doctor advised me to visit a dermatologist for an official diagnosis and further treatment. She also told me that the biotin gummies were a waste of money, since this type of hair loss wasn’t related to diet.

Total: $0.

July

$50: Copay for my first dermatologist visit. The doctor confirmed that I had alopecia areata, and told me that the most common course of treatment is corticosteroid injections. The steroids are supposed to stimulate hair growth, but they don’t always work and they don’t necessarily halt the hair loss. Still, they were my best bet, so I let the dermatologist stuck a needle full of steroids into my scalp about thirty times, which is not an experience I would recommend to anyone.

$229.07: The rest of my payment for that visit, since I hadn’t yet hit my healthcare deductible.

$12: Copay for a bottle of a topical solution that I was supposed to apply to the bald patches twice a day.

$10.19: Eyebrow pencil. I have a bad habit of scritching my eyebrows until the hair falls out, lending them a somewhat patchy appearance. Since I was feeling so despondent about my head-hair, I wanted to feel better about my face-hair, and using the pencil both improved the appearance and reduced scritching.

Total for July: $301.26

August

$0: A lightweight square scarf to cover my bald patches (borrowed from my mother). The steroids didn’t seem to have worked. Chunks of hair were still falling out in the shower, and in addition to the bald band at the bottom of my scalp, there were also patches on the back of my head, near my temples, and around my center part. One night, I was browsing a CVS when I looked up and saw myself in the overhead security mirrors and realized that there was a new spot on top of my head that I hadn’t noticed. The scarf, worn like a thick headband and tied at the back of my neck, eliminated that insecurity.

$4.99: Bottle of “anti-breakage” conditioner, bought on that trip to CVS in the hopes that it would somehow help stop my hair loss. (It did not.)

$50: Copay for the second dermatologist visit. She confirmed that there had been no regrowth as a result of the steroids, and that in fact my hair loss was worsening. She offered another treatment option: oral corticosteroids. However, the side effects were anxiety, insomnia, and weight gain, and I decided to skip the oral steroids in favor of a higher dose of the injection. The dermatologist also ordered blood work to see whether I had anemia or any thyroid issues, as those can also cause hair loss.

$39.24: Finally hit my healthcare deductible. Also, I learned that my iron and thyroid were fine, ruling those out as potential causes.

$12: Another bottle of the topical solution.

Total for August: $106.23

September

$45: Haircut. (My mother insisted on paying for this.) I was overdue for a cut anyway, and I figured that it might help disguise the balding if my hair were slightly shorter, since my curls tend to perk up and increase in volume without the extra weight caused by longer hair. As she was cutting my hair, my stylist showed me in the mirror that there was a slight fuzz appearing on the sides of my head, where I’d first noticed the loss back in May. My hair had finally begun to grow back.

$50: Another dermatologist visit. I proudly showed off my darkening fuzzy patches, and she agreed that the increased dosage of steroids was finally working. I’ll be continuing the monthly visits to have my scalp injected with steroids, and applying the topical solution ($12) every morning and night.

Total for September: $107

I’m not sure how long I’ll have to continue treatment, or spend $62 a month on my alopecia. I also have no idea how long my hair will take to grow back completely. Right now, I have an unintentional undercut, and the top layer is still patchy. But I’m very glad to feel like myself again, even though it’s costing more than I’d anticipated.

Total cost of alopecia areata over a four-month period: $514.49

Marielle Boudreau lives in Boston and has written about everything from 18th-century women to braille literacy to Roman comedy. You can view inartistic photos of her cat @boudreauville.

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