What to Know About Using ‘Cooling Caps’ During Chemotherapy  

Thinking about freezing your head during cancer treatment to save your hair? There are a few things you should know.

But first, here’s a quick overview of how it works: Chemotherapy patients wear an ice-cold, helmut-like hat during infusion sessions. The idea is that the cap freezes the scalp, so chemo meds don’t circulate in that area. You generally still lose your hair on other parts of your body, but the hair on top of your head will be saved.

You’ll need coolers, dry ice, extra caps and a volunteer who can help you manage the process. Every thirty minutes or so, as your cap thaws, you have to replace it with a fresh, ice cold one.

People who have gone through this process say that “cooling caps” is a misnomer. “Freezing caps” is more accurate. For the process to work, the caps have to fit tight, and they’re chilled to negative 30 degrees. While specific instructions may vary from one user to the next, you typically start wearing your cap an hour or so before your chemo infusion starts and keep it on for an hour or so after you finish. So, if your chemo session takes several hours…well, it’s a long time to have a frozen head.

You should also know that certain factors can make these caps less successful. For example, if your hair is super thick, you might not be as lucky as someone whose hair is thinner. The thinking is that thick hair prevents caps from freezing the scalp adequately, and in that case, hair loss can still happen.

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And, you have to make sure that your cap is on tight. Some caps are held down with velcro straps, but if it doesn’t hug your head tightly, you can wind up losing your hair in certain spots.

If you opt to try it, you need to be really careful with your hair throughout your chemo sessions. Avoid brushing it, pulling it, or putting any kind of stress on it. Some hair loss is to be expected even if everything goes well, but you might be able to get through cancer and still keep your hair.

Costs for cooling caps vary depending how many you need to rent, how long your treatment will last, whether or not you need to pay a helper, and if supplies like dry ice are available in your area.

The most common side effects from cooling caps are headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and discomfort. But don’t forget that ice numbs pain, so as miserable as it sounds to have a frozen scalp, in some ways it’s not that bad.

Some doctors caution that the caps prevent chemo meds from reaching the scalp area where stray cancer cells might be lurking, so make sure you talk with your oncologist and make a fully informed decision before you go forward. But for many people, women especially, the prospect of not going bald is worth discomfort.

In Europe, some hospitals offer cool caps that are built into refrigeration units, and patients wear a space-age looking helmut hooked up to a freezer instead of having to to lug in coolers, dry ice, and all the falderal that goes along with it. In the U.S., though, a few hospitals are doing clinical trials, but the wheels of the FDA move slowly.

Beauty is pain, as the saying goes. Here’s hoping you remember that you’re beautiful, even on a really bad hair day.

Update: The FDA has approved scalp-cooling technology in the treatment of certain cancers, and hospitals in many areas of the United States are now offering that option to patients. Check with your doctor and your medical facility to see if this option is a good fit for you.

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One comment

  1. Rhianna Hawk says:

    My sister is going into chemo soon, and we’ve been considering trying a cooling cap to help save her curls. I appreciate how you explained the way the cap works, keeping the chemo from circulating in the scalp, and it’s good to know that we should avoid brushing, pulling, or stressing the hair in any way during chemo sessions. We’ll be sure to discuss the option with our oncologist to ensure that a cooling cap will work well with her particular chemo needs, but I’m sure it’ll be fine, as the chemo is for ovarian cancer and so the cancer itself is nowhere near the scalp.

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