How Does Scalp Cooling Work & What are Its Benefits and Side Effects?

What is Scalp Cooling?

Scalp cooling is a treatment involving the application of cool temperature to the scalp during chemotherapy treatment for cancer. It is also known as scalp hypothermia. The main purpose of this treatment is to prevent hair loss due to the chemotherapy treatment. It works by reducing the blood supply to the scalp, thereby protecting the hair follicles from harsh chemo drugs.

How Does Scalp Cooling Work?

During chemotherapy treatment, the chemo drugs reach the hair follicles and cause hair loss. Scalp cooling constricts the blood vessels in the scalp and prevents the hair loss that occurs due to chemotherapy. There are various methods by which scalp cooling can be accomplished.

Ice Packs

Ice packs with temperatures between -15 and -40 are applied to the scalp and once the temperature gets warm, these ice packs are replaced with new ones.

Cooling Caps

These are the caps that can be filled with ice packs or other frozen material to secure the head during chemotherapy treatment. As the cap gets warm, it is replaced with another cooling cap until the treatment is finished.

Scalp Cooling System

The scalp cooling system is a technique in which a room-temperature cap is placed on the head and connected to a cooling machine. A second cap that is insulated is placed on the top of it.

The machine delivers coolant to the cap during the chemotherapy. It stays for an hour or half till the treatment is finished. There are sensors present in the cap that allow the temperature to be regulated and keep the cap cool throughout the treatment.

Benefits of Scalp Cooling

For those in whom scalp cooling proves to be effective can save most of their hair during the chemotherapy treatment.

A study conducted on women with breast cancer found that about 50 percent of females who received scalp cooling treatment along with chemotherapy kept most or all of their hair.(1) Studies also show that scalp cooling is effective in the early stages of cancer.

Scalp cooling is a non-invasive approach that appears to be safe. But, more research to prove its effectiveness in long term is needed. The scalp cooling treatment gives control over the chemo process bringing peace and confidence to the mind during the cancer treatment.

Side Effects of Scalp Cooling

Scalp cooling can cause a bit of discomfort if a person is sensitive to cold.

Applying cold temperature to the scalp can lower the overall body temperature. Therefore, bringing warm clothes and blankets to chemotherapy treatment is necessary to prevent hypothermia. The symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, lower heart rate, shallow breathing, and drowsiness.

Sometimes, if the scalp cooling systems do not cover the whole head, hair is lost in patches from those parts of the scalp. This risk is more with ice packs and cold caps, as they do not fit the scalp properly.

Some doctors and researchers feel the risk of scalp metastasis is more with scalp cooling as it may stop the chemo drug to reach the scalp. But, research suggests that the risk is the same with or without the cooling process.(2)

Scalp cooling is not recommended if:

  • A person is recommended chemotherapy for a longer period
  • Someone cannot tolerate the extreme cold for an extended time
  • A high chemo dose is given
  • A person has thick hair as the cooling device may not be able to reach the follicles effectively to contract the blood vessels
  • A doctor doubts that the cancer cells are in the scalp

This treatment is also not recommended if someone has leukemia or other blood-related cancers. Scalp cooling is an effective way to fight hair loss during cancer treatment. Also, now there are new cooling systems available that are more effective than the traditional cooling caps and ice packs and provide better coverage.

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