What is a Cooling Cap?

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The possibility of hair loss can be a frightening reality for patients who have been diagnosed with cancer. Imagine you've been recently diagnosed and have worked with your provider to determine that chemotherapy is one of your best treatment options. Weeks into treatment your hair begins to thin and come out, and you're trying to cope with the situation as well as you can, but you weren't ready to share your diagnosis with others yet. This is just one of many scenarios that could cause a chemotherapy patient apprehension as they consider the implications of their potential hair loss. 

In the late 80's, scientists discovered that cooling the scalp during chemotherapy could help minimize hair loss for those patients - a practice that has been continually enhanced with growing technology over the decades. 

How Do Cooling Caps Work?

The idea behind scalp hypothermia is that the cooling tightens up or constricts blood vessels in the scalp. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the constriction is thought to decrease the amount of chemo that reaches the cells of the hair follicles. The cold also decreases the activity of the hair follicles and makes them less attractive to chemotherapy, which targets rapidly dividing cells. This ultimately could reduce the effect of chemo on the follicle cells and as a result, prevent or reduce hair loss from the scalp.

Are Cooling Caps Effective?

The ACS reports that studies of older forms of scalp hypothermia (such as the use of ice packs) have returned conflicting results. They elaborate, however, that newer versions of these devices use a two-piece cooling cap system that is computer-controlled, which helps circulate a cooled liquid through a cap a person wears during each chemo treatment. A second cap, made from neoprene (a type of artificial rubber), covers the cooling cap to hold it in place and keep the cold from escaping.

Recent studies have found that approximately half of the women studied with early-stage breast cancer lost less than half of their hair when using this newer system.

Things to Consider

Like many treatments, cooling caps are not without side effects, as headaches, chills and neck and shoulder pain are commonly reported. Cooling cap users are also often advised to refrain from applying heat or color to their hair and may have to alter their hair-washing products and frequency.

Cooling cap success can rely on a range of factors including the specific chemotherapy drug, its dosage, a patient's hair thickness, and how well they tolerate cold. In order to decide if it might be right for you, speak with your provider to weigh the potential benefits and consequences. Lastly, don't forget to check with your insurance to determine if cooling cap therapy is covered, and what any associated costs would be.

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