Experts estimate that one in 10 people who contract COVID-19 will become “long haulers,” suffering from a variety of symptoms well after the acute illness is gone. But even people who recover from the virus quickly may experience some unexpected side effects: Research shows that COVID-19 may lead to temporary hair loss, gray hair, and alopecia.
Why might COVID-19 cause temporary hair loss?
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), temporary hair loss is common after a fever or illness. A more accurate term for it is “hair shedding,” because “loss” would imply that the change is permanent.
In a normal hair growth cycle, it’s normal to lose 50 to 100 hairs per day. It might be hard to tell whether you are shedding more than normal. But if you pull out huge clumps in the shower, that’s a good sign that you are experiencing excessive hair shedding.
An illness like COVID-19 puts the body under stress, which can cause more shedding than usual. However, it usually takes about two to three months after the acute illness for excessive shedding to occur. That’s why those of us who got the disease may not have realized that hair loss was related to the illness.
If you believe that you’re experiencing excessive hair shedding brought on by COVID-19, you can breathe a sigh of relief! It’s temporary, and your hair will grow back. The AAD notes that your hair should be back to its normal thickness in six to nine months.
COVID-19, Gray Hair, and Alopecia
A 2020 study published in Experimental Dermatology suggests that severe COVID-19 may increase the risk of gray hair and alopecia. For clarity, alopecia is a form of hair loss. There are two types: alopecia areata, or patchy hair loss caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking hair follicles, and androgenetic alopecia, or genetic hair loss characterized by an M-shaped hairline.
Researchers from São Paulo State University in Brazil conducted a population survey of over 66,667 individuals. The team compared participants who had COVID-19 with a control group of those who didn’t. They found that in men, severe cases of the disease correlated with extensive gray hair. In men and women, severe illness was linked to mild and severe alopecia.
However, there were some downsides to the study. The researchers did not differentiate between the two types of alopecia, and none of the participants were examined by a dermatologist.
Still, previous studies back up these findings. Both graying hair and alopecia correlate with a higher risk of heart disease. And patients who have heart disease are more likely to develop severe COVID-19 if they become infected.
In addition, other studies show that severe illness can cause both gray hair and hair loss. If a virus or bacteria enters the body, the body responds by launching a full-blown immune system attack. The bigger the attack, the more likely it is that non-essential processes like growing hair and giving it color will sit on the back burner. Severe illness can even cause hair follicle cells to die, giving them no chance to regrow.
So, what does this mean? If you’re worried about your hair, it’s a good idea to prevent severe illness as best you can. Wear a certified N95 or KN95 mask to protect yourself from Omicron, practice social distancing, and get your vaccine if you haven’t already. And if you suspect that you’re already dealing with extra grays or thinning hair, check out these tips for taking care of your strands and promoting regrowth.