Hair-Loss Medications and Hair Growth Pills Risks and Side Effects

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Tony Clemente, Senior Staff Writer

Tony Clemente has been writing for newspapers, magazines, websites, and other publications for over 20 years, covering subjects as diverse as lifestyle trends in the Southwest, health and wellness tips for Medicare recipients, and world-class quality improvement processes for major corporations. In addition to spending time under the knife during two major and five minor surgeries, Mr. Clemente has written extensively about cosmetic surgery procedures, including cosmetic dentistry, hair restoration, and bariatric weight-loss surgery. He has a BA in history from Williams College.


November 28 2007

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Hair loss can be very alarming for many men, since thinning hair or baldness is often considered a sign of aging or, even worse, romantically unappealing.

To combat the problem, a number of men opt to try hair-loss medications like Propecia®, one of a number of hair-growth pills on the market today. Propecia is a prescription drug, whose active ingredient is finasteride, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of mild to moderate male pattern baldness on the top of the head and the middle of the front of the head.

Finasteride was originally approved by the FDA for use in treating benign prostate enlargement under the brand name Proscar. It works by inhibiting the enzyme that converts testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a steroid hormone which can increase the effects of testosterone, including male pattern baldness and an enlarged prostate.

However, FDA approval doesn't guarantee complete safety or satisfaction for users of Propecia®. Side effects from the drug are potentially serious enough that Propecia is only available with a prescription from a doctor.

Propecia Side Effects

Side effects for men taking Propecia® aren't necessarily common, but they can be cause for concern. For instance, potential sexual side effects of Propecia® include impotence, a decrease in sexual desire, problems achieving an erection, difficulties with ejaculation, and a lower semen volume upon ejaculation. Other Propecia® side effects can include allergic reactions, swelling and tenderness in the breasts, and pain in the testicles.

Probably the most dangerous side effect of Propecia® and other finasteride-based hair-loss medications, however, affects women rather than men, even though Propecia® is targeted for men only. While Propecia® is manufactured with a protective coating, some men will try to save money by purchasing Proscar, which is available in 5-milligram tablets, and then cutting the pills up into 1-milligram doses, the size available through Propecia®. Pregnancy concerns can result when pregnant women (or women who may be considering pregnancy) come into direct contact with the crushed or broken tablets. Propecia-induced birth defects can result, in particular the abnormal development of genitalia in male fetuses.

Do Hair-Growth Pills Work?

Users of Propecia® and other finasteride-based hair-growth pills generally report either a regrowth of hair or a decrease in hair loss. Unfortunately, it takes about three months of continued use to see these effects, and the results are temporary, lasting only as long as the user continues to take the product on a daily basis. Hair transplants, on the other hand, can achieve much longer-lasting, and often permanent, results.

On the plus side, finasteride has been found to reduce the overall risk of prostate cancer by 25%, and a 2007 study found that it can also help doctors detect aggressive prostate tumors in their earlier stages.

Men interested in fighting hair loss should consult their doctors about the treatment options available to them. While Propecia® and other hair-loss medications may be able to help them reverse their balding patterns, these drugs carry risks and require a lifelong commitment in order to achieve results that will last as long as hair transplants can.