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What Is Hirsutism? - Definition, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Brenda Ware
Hirsuitism is a disorder that affects a small number of women. Read more about the phenomenon of hirsuitism, its various causes and forms of treatment available. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition

Hirsutism is excessive hair growth on a woman in places usually seen on men, such as the face, chest, back and abdomen. It is not a disease itself, but it can be a symptom of other diseases. Hirsutism can also be a hereditary condition, and not disease-related at all.

Hirsutism is caused by an increased level of circulating androgens in women. Androgens are the male hormones, such as testosterone, responsible for the male features developed in boys during puberty. Both men and women have androgens in their bodies. Women have a smaller amount than men.

When women have high levels of androgens, virilization can occur. Virilization is the development of male characteristics, such as excessive stimulation of hair follicles, a deep voice, increased sex drive, and increased muscle mass. Women who are exposed to high levels of testosterone may develop menstrual dysfunction, infertility, and decreased breast size.

Some women with hirsutism were part of circus sideshows in the 19th and early 20th centuries
Old picture of woman with hirsutism

Causes of Hirsutism

The most common cause of hirsutism is polycystic ovary disease (POD). POD is a disease in which the ovaries have multiple testosterone-secreting cysts. Obesity is often associated with POD.

Hirsutism can also be caused by tumors of the pituitary gland or the adrenal gland. Pituitary tumors cause the excessive secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which stimulates the adrenal gland to secrete excessive corticosteroids. Corticosteroids, in turn, stimulate androgens. This disorder is known as Cushing's Syndrome. Long-term use of corticosteroids as a medical treatment for conditions such as arthritis or asthma can also cause Cushing's symptoms.

Hirsutism is a hereditary trait of certain populations, predominantly women with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and South Asian ancestry. Excessive hair growth in these populations is not a result of disease.

Hirsutism can cause women to grow facial hair
Hirsutism can cause women to grow facial hair

Treatment

The treatment for women with hirsutism related to POD is to reduce the level of circulating testosterone. This may include surgical removal of the ovaries. Oral contraceptives may be prescribed, which reduce the secretion of testosterone from the ovaries. Medical professionals also sometimes prescribe drugs to block the effects of testosterone.

Treatment of Cushing's syndrome is to reduce the level of circulating corticosteroids. This can be achieved by removing pituitary or adrenal tumors. Occasionally, the entire adrenal gland must be removed.

Certain drugs may be prescribed to decrease the secretion of corticosteroids. Others block the effects of cortisol in the tissues. People whose symptoms are a result of long-term use of corticosteroids as a medical treatment should gradually reduce the dosage if they can tolerate being off the drug.

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