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COVID-19 survivors are reporting dramatic hair loss, experts explain why


TextAlex Peters

An increasing number of accounts are coming out reporting hair loss as a symptom of coronavirus

An increasing number of first-hand accounts and early medical findings are reporting a link between COVID-19 and dramatic hair loss among virus survivors.

Last month, results were published from a survey conducted by Dr Natalie Lambert from Indiana University School of Medicine and Survivor Corps, a nonprofit aimed at coronavirus education for survivors of the illness. “COVID-19 ‘Long Hauler’ Symptoms Survey Report” found that 65.7 per cent of 1,700 respondents reported experiencing hair loss.

Meanwhile, specialists at the Belgravia Centre in London reported that 64 per cent of male patients and 38 per cent of females who were diagnosed with telogen effluvium (TE) – a form of hair loss that normally occurs after a shock or a traumatic event – over a six week period in June and July had experienced virus symptoms, the majority in March.

Anecdotally, survivors are beginning to come forward with stories of their own hair loss. Grace Dudley, an Essex-based make-up artist, was losing so much hair after spending two weeks in hospital fighting the virus that she made the decision to shave it all off. Meanwhile, over the weekend, Alyssa Milano posted a video of the hair loss she is experiencing. “Thought I’d show you what #Covid19 does to your hair. Please take this seriously,” she wrote with an accompanying video showing her brushing her hair and pulling out handfuls of strands.

“We are still in the very early stages of understanding the effects of COVID-19 on various organ systems (hair included) but it does seem that COVID-19 is triggering acute telogen effluvium in patients,” says Dr Sharon Wong, a consultant dermatologist who specialises in hair health and hair loss.

While we all shed hair – up to 100 strands a day – people suffering from TE can experience losing from three times that amount. “In acute telogen effluvium, the normal hair growth cycle is disturbed – a greater proportion of hair follicles prematurely leave the growing phase and move into the resting/shedding phase at the same time, meaning that there is a dramatic increase in the amount of hair shed daily,” Dr Wong explains.

Whilst the COVID-19 infection itself may be the trigger for TE, she says there are many related factors that could also be contributing to the shedding including the emotional stress of the illness, financial or personal worries as a result of the pandemic, and also weight loss and poor nutrition during the illness. Simone Thomas, a qualified trichologist and hair loss consultant, agrees that there are multiple factors at work. 

“I have seen severe hair loss from COVID-19 which is as severe as cancer hair loss due to chemotherapy treatment” – Simone Thomas, trichologist

“Scientists are still working to fully understand the way that COVID-19 attacks the body, but it is clear that it prompts a strong response from the immune system,” she says. “As the immune system fights back, the body’s resources are diverted to fighting the virus and protecting the vital organs. As hair is not vital for the body to function, when our bodies are under attack it is one of the first things to be impacted in the case of a virus and illness.”

“The global pandemic has not only posed risks to our physical health,” she continues, however, “but it has also 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.”

Both Dr Wong and Thomas say they have treated multiple patients for hair loss who have experienced virus symptoms in the last few months, many had noticed the significant hair shedding several months after symptoms.

“I have seen severe hair loss from COVID-19 which is as severe as cancer hair loss due to chemotherapy treatment, a 90 per cent loss,” says Thomas who has seen the number of new consultations at her clinic rise from having 20 per month to over that per week with all cases either virus-related or stress-related due to the pandemic. “If the body is supported and balanced and looked after with nutrition, lifestyle, and supplements after such a virus there is no reason hair should not grow back to how it was, but as none of us know the true long-term effects we are only going from what we know about the body and hair function.”

Dr Wong agrees that the hair loss shouldn’t be permanent as acute telogen effluvium that is caused by an infection generally improves on its own accord usually around six months after recovery from the illness, although it will take many more months before the hair is restored to its full normal volume. However, as we are still in the early stages of understanding COVID-19, it is too soon to say for certain. “While at present there is nothing to suggest that COVID-19 should affect the hair follicles any differently to flu or other febrile illnesses, we are only just starting to see the first wave of patients recovering from the virus and so it may be too early to draw definitive conclusions as to how long it takes to recover from COVID-19 related hair loss,” she says.

For those people who are experiencing acute telogen effluvium after an infection, Dr Wong says it will recover with time with no specific treatment required although it is worth trying to keep your stress and anxiety levels down as that can drive further hair shedding and delay recovery. She suggests mindfulness techniques and meditation can be helpful for many patients. It is also super important, she says, to ensure that you are getting the nutrients you need after your appetite returns – the full spectrum of macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that a well balanced, healthy diet provides.

“With hair loss you need to treat the inside for the outside to flourish, this is why lifestyle, nutrients, diet and supplements are so important,” agrees Thomas who puts together plans consisting of food, nutrition, supplements and, if needed, lifestyle changes for the clients at her clinics. And if you are in any doubt, remember to check with your doctor if you think something’s up. 

 

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