Scalp cooling may help to reduce hair loss from the head caused by some chemotherapy drugs. Treating thinning hair carefully can also prevent further hair loss.

What is scalp cooling?

Cooling your head in certain ways during chemotherapy may reduce or prevent hair loss. Scalp cooling can reduce the blood flow to your scalp. This can stop the chemotherapy drug from affecting your hair.

Scalp cooling is only effective when used with certain chemotherapy drugs. It is not always possible to know how well it will work until you try it. Scalp cooling is not suitable during treatment for some types of cancer. Some hospitals do not have facilities for scalp cooling. Your doctor or chemotherapy nurse can tell you if it is available and suitable for you.

Types of scalp cooling

There are two types of scalp cooling. Both types of scalp cooling cap need to be worn for up to 30 to 40 minutes before your chemotherapy drugs are given, during your treatment and for some time afterwards. You may have the cap on for a few hours in total. The chemotherapy staff can help you feel as comfortable as possible.

Cold gel cap

This method uses a special cap that is filled with cold gel. It can be fitted easily and kept in place with Velcro®. Some people find the cold cap uncomfortable or heavy to wear. It can also give some people a headache. The cap needs to be changed every 20 to 40 minutes to keep your scalp cool.

Refrigerated cooling system

The other type of scalp cooling uses a refrigerated cooling system. It pumps liquid coolant through a cap. This cap generally feels lighter than a gel-filled cap. You need to sit next to the machine while the cap is in place. This means that, unlike with a cold gel cap, you cannot walk about freely.

Having scalp cooling

For scalp cooling to work, your scalp temperature needs to be kept low while the chemotherapy drugs are in your blood.

If you are having your chemotherapy as an outpatient, scalp cooling may make your appointment longer. You may be at the hospital for up to three hours longer for each treatment.

You will probably feel cold when having scalp cooling. Wearing warm clothes and drinking hot drinks will help you feel warmer.

You may get a headache during scalp cooling, especially in hot weather.

Scalp cooling is not suitable if:

  • You have a blood (haematological) cancer, such as myeloma, leukaemia or lymphoma. This is because there is a risk of cancer cells surviving in the blood vessels of the scalp. This means that the cancer may come back.
  • You have already had your first course of chemotherapy without scalp cooling.
  • You need very high doses of chemotherapy. Scalp cooling is less likely to work with high-dose chemotherapy.
  • You are having continuous chemotherapy through a pump for several days.
  • Your liver is not working as well as it should be. The chemotherapy drugs may stay in the body for longer than usual. It may not be possible to keep the scalp cold for long enough.
  • You have severe migraines.

How effective is scalp cooling?

Scalp cooling can be effective in preventing or reducing hair loss. But you will not know how well it will work for you until you try it.

Even if you have scalp cooling, you may find that your hair still gets thinner. Unfortunately, some people who have scalp cooling still lose their hair. If you lose your hair, your nurse will usually talk to you about stopping the scalp cooling. This is to protect your scalp from the effects of the cold temperatures.

Some people find that gradually losing their hair while using scalp cooling is harder to cope with than a quicker hair loss without scalp cooling.

Scalp cooling only protects the hair on your scalp. Body hair may still fall out, including eyelashes, eyebrows, beards and moustaches, chest hair and pubic hair.

If you are interested in scalp cooling, talk to your doctor or nurse. They can tell you if it is available and suitable for you.

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