By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Q: I am a 20-year-old female. I have hair on my chest, back and stomach. I am wondering if I have a hormone problem. If so, is there a way to treat it?
A: About 10 percent of American women believe that they have more body hair than they should. Even more say they have more hair than they want.
The amount of hair you have is strongly influenced by the appearance of other women in your family and your ethnic background.
There is great variation in hair pattern in different ethnic groups and in people from different parts of the world. Mediterranean women and those from the Near East and India tend to have more body hair, but this is completely normal for them. Asian American and Native American women tend to have less body hair and that pattern is normal for them. There is also variation between families in the same ethnic group.
If your hair pattern does not run in your family, it is possible that there is a hormonal based cause.
All women produce some male hormones, called androgens. It would be helpful to know some specifics about where the hair growth is occurring. Androgens tend to stimulate hair growth in certain sites — the mustache or chin area, around the nipples, in the midline of the lower abdomen and on the arms and legs.
Excessive hair growth in these areas sometimes provides a clue that a woman is producing too much androgen or her skin is especially sensitive to normal levels of androgens. Doctors call this hirsutism.
Menstrual function and hair growth are very closely connected. If your menstrual periods have been regular, you very likely have idiopathic hirsutism. This means that the exact cause is unknown. However, if your periods are not regular and you have excessive body or facial hair, this suggests that there is increased androgen.
Medical treatments are available for women who have androgen-driven hirsutism. Cosmetic treatments can be very successful for excessive body and facial hair, no matter what the underlying cause.
(Howard LeWine, M.D. is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)