Hirsutism, which is defined as androgen-dependent excessive male-pattern hair growth, affects approximately 10% of women. Hirsutism is most often idiopathic or the consequence of androgen excess associated with the polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Less frequently, it may result from adrenal androgen overproduction as occurs in nonclassic congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) (Table 49-1). Rarely, it is a harbinger of a serious underlying condition. Cutaneous manifestations commonly associated with hirsutism include acne and male-pattern balding (androgenic alopecia). Virilization refers to a condition in which androgen levels are sufficiently high to cause additional signs and symptoms, such as deepening of the voice, breast atrophy, increased muscle bulk, clitoromegaly, and increased libido; virilization is an ominous sign that suggests the possibility of an ovarian or adrenal neoplasm.
Table 49-1 Causes of Hirsutism |Favorite Table|Download (.pdf)
Table 49-1 Causes of Hirsutism
Polycystic ovary syndrome/functional ovarian hyperandrogenism
Ovarian steroidogenic blocks
Syndromes of extreme insulin resistance
Functional adrenal hyperandrogenism
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (nonclassic and classic)
Abnormal cortisol action/metabolism
Other endocrine disorders
Peripheral androgen overproduction
Thecoma of pregnancy
Oral contraceptives containing androgenic progestins
Hair Follicle Growth and Differentiation
Hair can be categorized as either vellus (fine, soft, and not pigmented) or terminal (long, coarse, and pigmented). The number of hair follicles does not change over an individual′s lifetime, but the follicle size and type of hair can change in response to numerous factors, particularly androgens. Androgens are necessary for terminal hair and sebaceous gland development and mediate differentiation of pilosebaceous units (PSUs) into either a terminal hair follicle or a sebaceous gland. In the former case, androgens transform the vellus hair into a terminal hair; in the latter case, the sebaceous component proliferates and the hair remains vellus.
There are three phases in the cycle of hair growth: (1) anagen (growth phase), (2) catagen (involution phase), and (3) telogen (rest phase). Depending on the body site, hormonal regulation may play an important role in the hair growth cycle. For example, the eyebrows, eyelashes, and vellus hairs are androgen-insensitive, whereas the axillary and pubic areas are sensitive to low levels of androgens. Hair growth on the face, chest, upper abdomen, and back requires higher levels of androgens and is therefore more characteristic of the pattern typically seen in men. Androgen excess in women leads to increased hair growth in most androgen-sensitive sites except in the scalp region, where hair loss occurs because androgens cause scalp hairs to spend less time in the anagen phase.
Although androgen excess underlies most cases of hirsutism, there is only a modest correlation between androgen levels and the quantity of hair growth. This is due to ...