When health experts list the potential long-term side effects of COVID-19, a loss of taste and smell, debilitating headaches, and lethargy seem to be the most common. But nearly six months after the virus first took hold in the west, some survivors are beginning to notice another lingering repercussion: hair loss.
You might have seen actress Alyssa Milano speak openly about her firsthand experience with hair loss following a coronavirus diagnosis. In a video shared to Twitter, Milano brushed her hair and showed the camera just how many strands came loose in a single stroke. She isn't alone: Head to Reddit and Twitter, and you'll see countless threads where individuals discuss hair loss as a potential post-COVID side effect.
"I have quite fine hair, but it has never come out in my hands before," Vanessa, a coronavirus survivor, tells Refinery29. "I would never see a hair at the bottom of the shower or around the house. It just didn't fall out at all — until now. Initially I put it down to stress, 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, who is 36, she's still experiencing hair loss months down the line. "It's generally all over, rather than in specific areas," she says of the shedding. "I'm baffled. In quarantine, I bought some really nice hair masks and products. I haven't colored 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, in fact, noticed an uptick in reported 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 Simone Thomas, a hair loss specialist. The list of such events includes grief, shock, childbirth, and illness; anything from a major surgical procedure to extreme weight loss can contribute, too. Dr. Zainab Laftah, consultant dermatologist at HCA The Shard, 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?
We still don't know exactly how coronavirus might impact our bodies longterm, so the research surrounding its contribution to hair loss is scarce. Dr. Laftah says she's noticed firsthand a number of patients presenting with hair loss roughly three months after a short-lived coronavirus bout or from quarantine-induced stress.
"A Spanish journal recently published a link between androgenetic alopecia (male pattern baldness) in patients hospitalized with COVID-19," Dr. Laftah continues. "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 believe that androgens (male hormones) are linked to the coronavirus infection and immunosuppressive effects. However, much more research is needed to draw a conclusion, Dr. Laftah says.
It isn't just men who are experiencing extreme shedding, though: It's women, too. Even with sparse scientific backup, personal experience can't be dismissed. Thomas 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," she says. "It is an aggressive virus and it is clear that it prompts a strong response from the immune system." Of course, the studies linking the two conditions are interesting, but they are small. The case for stress causing hair loss, however, is strong.
Can the stress of coronavirus cause hair loss?
"Stress is one of the most common causes of telogen effluvium," Thomas says. "The International Association of Trichologists recently reported two different types of hair loss attributed to the virus: diffuse hair loss, which is 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.
"The global pandemic has not only posed risks to our physical health but caused a lot of stresses coupled with the growing economic impact, which has put us all under severe psychological strain," Thomas says. "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's been incredibly stressed, too. "I work in entertainment and have had lots of jobs cancelled, so I've been very emotional, very up and dow," she says. "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. "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," she says. "Now it's falling out. I'll brush or wash my hair and lots will shed. We have white tiles, and I've noticed a lot of hair on the floor."
What should you do if you experience 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 doctor or a dermatologist, trichologist, or hair loss expert. They are likely to recommend 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 explains. If that's the case, you may be prescribed dietary supplements or referred to a nutritionist.
Unfortunately, Dr. Laftah says that there is no specific treatment or cure 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. Thomas says, "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, Thomas suggests checking for signs of regrowth on the top of your hairline in particular.
Dr. Laftah adds that hair loss itself can be stressful, so finding patient support groups, practicing relaxation techniques, trying talk therapy or counseling, and turning to mindfulness exercises (such as yoga and meditation) can all help manage stress to get your hair — and more importantly, your mental health — back on track.