Caroline is a smart, attractive, articulate woman, whose looks belie her 63 years. But Caroline has a secret she is bald. She suffers from alopecia, a condition which means she has no hair on her scalp, no eyelashes or eyebrows and hardly any body hair. Doreen Friend heard her story.

A woman's hair is said to be her crowning glory, but imagine how terrible it must be for a woman to be bald.

Female baldness either due to alopecia when the immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles - or through cancer chemotherapy treatment, is still a taboo subject, with few women openly admitting they wear a wig.

Caroline (not her real name), was devastated when she lost her hair. She said: "Having to wear a wig is embarrassing and completely knocked my confidence."

Caroline, from Woodford Green, explained: "My hair started coming out in patches about 20 years ago, and got progressively worse.

"I must admit I didn't cope very well and still find it difficult to come to terms with at times. It's not so much wearing a wig, as the embarrassment and the fear that people will find out.

"My family and close friends know and have accepted, but there are still those who like to ridicule bald women and see them as figures of fun," she added.

As well as the emotional trauma accompanying hair loss, Caroline says there are number of practical issues to be faced.

"Wigs made from human hair are very expensive and need careful washing and brushing, and you need at least two," she explained.

"Wigs not made of real hair need a special shampoo which costs around £6.50 a bottle.

"They should fit snugly and comfortably. Some years ago my wig blew off while I was shopping. People were staring at me, I can't begin to tell you how embarrassing it was," she added.

Wearing a wig all day is not particularly comfortable for Caroline, especially during the summer.

"Wigs don't allow your scalp to breath and it can become sweaty and extremely unpleasant on a very hot day. New wigs are tighter fitting than those which are six months old, and the constant pressure can cause headaches."

Caroline makes a point of choosing wigs which match her skin tone, and has taken to wearing hair which includes shades of grey.

Alopecia causes a more permanent hair loss than the effects of chemotherapy which uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells.

Information from CancerBACUP suggests hair usually grows back once the chemotherapy treatment is over.

At Whipps Cross University Hospital cancer patients and those suffering from alopecia are able to discuss their condition with their consultant.

A spokesman said: "Depending on the severity of hair loss, the consultant will refer the patient to the hospital Surgical Appliances Unit, which in turn sends the patient to Raoul, a specialist company of wig suppliers."

Company director at Raoul, Carol Palmer, said: "Female hair loss is a very sensitive issue and all patients are treated in strict confidence. When women are referred to us they either come here, or we visit them at their home.

"They are often quite distressed, so we help them as much as possible and discuss their needs thoroughly. Wigs are sized and fitted to a woman's head and we always take her colouring into account.

"We advise women on ways and means of ensuring the wig sticks to the head. This can be particularly awkward if she is completely bald," she added.

Mrs Palmer said a wig will last for about six months if worn every day, but agrees those suffering permanent hair loss should invest in a couple.

Mrs Palmer added: "Patients referred to us by Whipps Cross Hospital have usually been given a prescription and can claim some of the cost back from the NHS.

"All our wigs are of excellent quality and as well as supplying wigs to women suffering from hair loss, we stock fashion wigs costing up to £1,000."

Does wearing a wig have any advantage?

Caroline said: "I never have bad hair days, I won't go grey unless I want to, and I can drip dry my hair."