Greyness of the hair is an exceedingly common affection. The greyness of advancing years, due to natural degeneration, demands no special notice, but, unfortunately, premature greyness is not only very prevalent but is undoubtedly on the increase.
Premature greyness, like many other hair and skin affections, may frequently be traced to an hereditary tendency, but there are numerous instances of it which are not due to this, and for which there apparently seems to be no special cause.
The truth is, however, that there may be a variety of causes of this affection, many of them being preventable. The colour and variety of shades in the hair largely depend upon the quality and quantity of pigmentary matter secreted by the glands, and produced in the medullary substance of the hair.
Some writers have advanced the theory that the bright, white light reflected from the winter snow is the cause of all the animals in the high northern latitudes becoming white in winter. This idea seems to be to some extent borne out by the fact that in our own country this singular change takes place in two instances. The Alpine hare and the ptarmigan, or mountain partridge, though brownish grey in summer, become wholly white as soon as the snows begin to cover their place of resort.
It seems more feasible, however, to conclude that, as this blanching only occurs in a few instances it is due to extreme cold, for if the skin by any means is contracted at the roots of the hair, and the pigmentary matter and oil prevented from rising, there will only remain the dry body of the hair, and it will, of course, be white.
This explains, also, the sudden blanching of the hair from fright, grief, or shock, many instances of which have been recorded. The pigmentary matter is suddenly arrested by violent nervous contractions, which, in cases of highly emotional disturbance, are not followed by healthy reaction of the skin.
There are many historical instances of this sudden blanching of the hair. That of Marie Antoinette, whose auburn tresses became white as snow in one night, is well known. Another historical instance is recorded in the case of Mary Queen of Scots, whose red hair became white within a few days.
Sir Erasmus Wilson, in one of his works on the skin and hair, relates the case of a lady who had been engaged for some years to a gentleman living abroad. During his voyage home to complete his marriage engagement, a shipwreck occurred, and he was drowned. A day or two after the date when his ship was expected to arrive, a letter was put into his fiancee's hands which conveyed the news of his death. She had a nervous collapse, and remained in an almost unconscious state for five hours.
On the following evening, her hair, which had previously been of a deep brown colour, was observed to have become perfectly white. Her eyebrows and eyelashes retained their natural colour. Subsequently, the whole of the white hair fell off, and when another growth appeared, it too was grey.
Neuralgia as a Cause
A case was recorded in the "Lancet" a good many years ago of a young man who had dark brown hair. He was engaged in Norway upon a railway. An accident occurred; he sustained no injury, but experienced great fright. The next morning, his hair, particularly that which grew over the temporal bone, had changed from brown to grey.
In such cases, the nerves, as well as the skin, are undoubtedly affected, and the great sensitive nerve, commonly called the fifth nerve, is always the chief one to suffer. This nerve is the largest cranial one, and resembles a spinal nerve, having two roots and a ganglion upon its posterior root. It supplies the head and face and hair.
Premature greyness is often caused by neuralgia, in which the fifth nerve is greatly affected. It will often be found that the hair has become white in streaks just over the parts of the head where the neuralgia has been most frequent.
Constant perspiration of the scalp is another cause of premature greyness. This has been variously explained. One explanation is that the acid generated by the perspiration has a bleaching effect. It is certainly true that early greyness is more common in tropical than in temperate climates.
A superabundance of lime in the body will cause greyness. Gouty and rheumatic people are liable to premature greyness, the explanation being that the lime causes obstruction to the colouring matter, which cannot thus properly permeate the medullary substance; the hair, therefore, becomes grey, dry, and brittle.
The greyness of advancing years is not caused, as is sometimes supposed, by any change in the colouring matter; it is really due to an arrest of the progress of pigmentary development. In old age there is a natural waste or organic degeneration going on in the bones and tissues. These shrink and contract for want of moisture. The skin of the scalp naturally also shrinks, and the pigmentary matter fails in secretion.
This general failure of nutrition may, of course, take place through other causes than that of old age. Dyspepsia affects the general nutrition; long and exhausting illnesses have also the same effect. Constant worry, nervous debility, and a general neurasthenic condition are all factors in arresting the nutrition of the body.
A Valuable Drug
In cases of anaemia and exhaustion, tonics, in the form of iron, quinine, nux vomica, etc., should be judiciously administered, but diet and general hygienic measure's are of more importance than drugs. Nutritious but simple food, plenty of open-air exercise, freedom as far as possible from worry and anxiety, these are all prophylactics against premature greyness.
There is only one drug which has any real effect in arresting premature greyness. This is hydrochlorate of pilocarpine, a preparation from the leaves of the jaborandi plant, a native of South America. This exercises a strong stimulating effect upon the natural pigmentary matter, encouraging its secretion. It is an expensive and powerful drug, and only needs to be prescribed in very small quantities.
The following prescription has been successfully used in a large number of cases:
Spt. vin. rect..........................................
Aqua rosae ......
This should be thoroughly rubbed into the scalp every night, and the treatment persevered with for at least five or six weeks.
When the hair is of a brittle nature, and the scalp very dry, a more emollient preparation would be advisable, and a pomade, such as the following, may be used:
Tinct. of jaborandi..................................
This, also, must be well rubbed into the scalp, and its use persevered with. Cases of premature greyness, due to an hereditary-tendency, seldom, unfortunately, yield to treatment. When the hair is becoming prematurely grey, lotions containing tincture of cantharides, quinine, nux vomica, ammonia, and strong spirituous preparations, are better avoided.
The greyness of old age cannot be remedied. It can, however, be disguised, and for this purpose dyes would be necessary. Hair of silvery whiteness, however, is so beautiful and fitting a frame for an aged face that, unless there is a necessity, from the point of view of competition in the field of employment, to appear as young as possible, dyeing the hair is not advisable.