"I have quite fine hair but it has never come out in my hands before," Vanessa, 36, tells Refinery29. "I would never see one hair of mine at the bottom of the shower or around the house. It just didn't fall out at all – until now."
When health experts list the long-term side effects of COVID-19, a loss of taste and smell, debilitating headaches and lethargy seem to be the most common lasting symptoms. But months after the virus first took hold, people who have since recovered are beginning to notice another potential lingering after-effect: hair loss.
You might have seen actor Alyssa Milano speak openly about her firsthand experience of coronavirus and hair loss. In a viral video posted online, Alyssa brushed her hair and showed the camera just how many strands had come loose in a single stroke. She isn't alone. Head to Reddit and Twitter and you'll come across countless threads where individuals are discussing hair loss as a potential post-COVID side effect.
"Initially, I put the hair loss down to stress," continues Vanessa. "But when a friend messaged me asking if my hair loss experience mirrored hers after contracting coronavirus, I realized it probably wasn't." While symptoms such as exhaustion, sensitivity, and a loss of taste and smell have passed for Vanessa, she is still experiencing hair loss months down the line. "It's generally all over, rather than in specific areas," she tells R29. "I'm baffled. In lockdown, I bought some really nice hair masks and products. I haven't coloured my hair for months, I'm washing it less and I haven't used heat on it since February. I thought my hair would do really well but it's shedding more."
What is stress-induced hair loss and why does it occur?
Dermatologists and hair loss experts have noticed an uptick in hair loss cases since coronavirus. "Typically, temporary hair loss (otherwise known as telogen effluvium or TE) will start two to four months after a triggering event such as stress," says hair loss specialist Simone Thomas. "The list includes grief, shock, childbirth, illness and deficiencies," and anything from major surgical procedures to extreme weight loss can also contribute. Dr Zainab Laftah, consultant dermatologist at HCA The Shard in London adds: "A disturbance in the hair cycle causes the hairs to shift from the growing phase to the shedding phase. This results in sudden hair loss, which affects hair thickness all over the scalp."
Can coronavirus cause hair loss?
Dr Laftah has noticed a number of patients presenting with hair loss three months after a short-lived coronavirus illness or from lockdown-induced stress. "A Spanish journal recently published a link between androgenetic alopecia (male pattern baldness) in patients hospitalized with COVID-19," Dr Laftah says. "The study reviewed 41 men with COVID-19-induced pneumonia and found 71% developed hair loss affecting the top and front of the scalp." The authors of the report assume that androgens (male hormones) are linked to the coronavirus infection and immunosuppressive effects. However, much more research is needed to draw a conclusion, says Dr Laftah.
It isn't just men who are experiencing extreme hair loss, though. It's women, too. Although research is sparse, personal experience can't be dismissed. Simone reports a rise in Zoom consultations with clients who are experiencing hair loss for the first time after contracting the virus. "Scientists are still working to fully understand the way that COVID-19 attacks the body," says Simone. "It is an aggressive virus and it is clear that it prompts a strong response from the immune system." Of course, the studies are interesting, but they are small. Could the link between hair loss and emotional stress and anxiety during the time of coronavirus be a more plausible explanation?
Can the stress of coronavirus cause hair loss?
"Stress is one of the most common causes of telogen effluvium (temporary hair loss)," says Simone. "The International Association of Trichologists recently reported two different types of hair loss attributed to the virus," she adds. "They are: diffuse hair loss (shedding of hair across the scalp) and alopecia areata," which causes hair to fall out in small patches. In one particular case, the association attributes both types of hair loss to stress to the body and economic worries. Simone adds: "The global pandemic has not only posed risks to our physical health but it has caused a lot of stresses coupled with the growing economic impact, which has put us all under severe psychological strain. Fear, panic, and worry are all factors which can contribute to increased hair shedding, resulting in thinning hair. I have had many consultation calls over lockdown with people who are losing their hair due to the stress of being stuck indoors and worrying about finances and their future."
Like Vanessa, Hannah, 36, suspects her increased hair loss is a result of the virus but mentions she has been incredibly stressed, too. "I work in entertainment and have had lots of jobs cancelled, so I've been very emotional, very up and down. Then I read an article on hair loss and coronavirus and I thought that it could be linked. I posted an Instagram story on the topic and received lots of replies from people saying that they had experienced the same thing post-COVID."
Hannah's hair isn't falling out in clumps — it's more sporadic — but it is taking a toll on her self-esteem and contributing further to stress. Hannah continues: "My hair isn't in a great state anyway because I've worn extensions for years. Lockdown was the perfect time for me to take a break; to grow my hair out and regain thickness. Now it's falling out. I'll brush my hair and lots will shed. When I wash my hair, I shed a lot more than usual. We have white tiles and I've noticed a lot of hair on the floor."
What to do if you are experiencing hair loss after coronavirus
If you are experiencing hair loss for the first time and you suspect it might be related to COVID-19, your first port of call should be an appointment with your GP or a dermatologist, trichologist, or hair loss expert, says Dr Laftah. They are likely to organize relevant blood tests to determine whether your hair loss may be a result of an underlying condition. "An underlying co-existing nutritional deficit could be contributing to the hair loss and treatment will help speed up the recovery process," Dr Laftah continues. If that's the case, it's likely you'll be prescribed dietary supplements or referred to a nutritionist.
Sadly, Dr Laftah says that there is no specific treatment for hair loss like telogen effluvium, which occurs months after a physically or emotionally stressful event. "Once the trigger has subsided, however, the hair loss may resolve completely after several months," Dr Laftah says. Simone concurs: "It may seem obvious but regrowth (however slow or small at first) is a sign of recovery and it can actually often be missed." After three to six months of shedding, Simone suggests checking for signs of regrowth on the top of your hairline in particular.
Finally, Dr Laftah adds that hair loss itself can be stressful, so engaging with patient support groups, practising relaxation techniques and regularly doing mindfulness exercises (such as yoga and meditation) can all help manage stress. Simone also pinpoints counselling as a very helpful tool for her hair loss patients.
This piece was originally published by Refinery29 UK.