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Monilethrix is a genetic disorder that affects hair growth and structure. People with the condition generally have very dry, brittle, short hair in multiple spots on their scalps. Upon close inspection, an affected hair tends to resemble beads on a string; thick nodes are separated by very thin, fragile sections. There is no cure for monilethrix, but patients can take preventive measures such as wearing protective wigs or hats to help protect their natural hair.
Researchers have discovered that monilethrix is an autosomal dominant disorder, which indicates that a child can inherit it if one of his or her parents carries a mutated copy of a particular gene. The gene involved normally creates proteins called keratins that give hair its strength and shine. Damaged genes are unable to produce functional hair keratins, and the result is fragile hairs and patchy growth areas on the scalp.
Monilethrix is most commonly isolated to the back of the scalp and the nape of the neck, though it can sometimes affect the entire scalp. A very small number of patients experience unusual hairs in their eyebrows, pubic regions, or underarms as well. Monilethrix gives hair a dull, frazzled appearance and makes it very susceptible to breakage with even minor trauma, such as running a comb through it. It is common for sufferers to also develop a condition called keratosis pilaris, which causes small bumps to appear at the base of hair follicles that may be coated with a crusty residue. Alopecia, or patchy balding, may occur and resolve spontaneously throughout a person's life.
A doctor can usually diagnose monilethrix in an infant or young child through a simple physical exam. A scalp tissue sample may be collected and observed under a microscope to confirm the condition and rule out other potential causes of hair abnormalities. After making a diagnosis, the doctor can explain the details of monilethrix and provide helpful information about managing the disorder.
Several different medications and remedies have been tried to treat monilethrix in the past, though none have been proven effective. Most patients are advised to protect their hair from harmful environmental factors such as direct sun exposure and high winds. Hair dyes, bleaches, and chemicals used in permanent treatments can also damage brittle hairs and should generally be avoided. If balding is a concern, a person may want to invest in a wig or hairpiece. Individuals who take the proper precautions can usually preserve most of their existing hair.