Among the many side effects of COVID-19 that have emerged, hair loss may be one of the most unexpected. “It took me a little off guard,” says Dr. Pedram Yazdan an assistant professor of dermatology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “I think it allowed me to appreciate how stressful this infection can be on our bodies.”
Technically known as telogen effluvium, temporary hair loss can be triggered by many things, from weight loss to severe infection and psychological stress. Yazdan, who specializes in hair loss, says all three may play a role in the reports of hair loss he’s seeing. One such report, a survey of more than 1,500 survivors released in late July, lists hair loss as among the top 25 symptoms experienced (out of nearly 100 total) by COVID-19 survivors.
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Conducted by Dr. Natalie Lambert, a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and Survivor Corps, a grassroots movement of COVID-19 survivors, the survey reveals that more people experienced hair loss than nausea or runny nose — two hallmark symptoms of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The survey isn’t the only place to highlight the issue. A study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology in April reported a “high frequency” of “male pattern hair loss” among COVID-19 patients in Spain. A post from the Cleveland Clinic on July 30 noted an increase in COVID-19 patients reporting the condition. And in an interview with USA Today late July, a doctor from Lenox Hill Hospital in New York said she’s been seeing patients come in with “bags of hair” that they’ve lost after recovering from COVID-19.
Yazdan has seen cases of it as well. “I see patients in the clinic for hair disorder issues and recently we had a couple of patients who during — and even after — infection with COVID, started to have pretty noticeable shedding of their hair,” says Yazdan. “And basically there was no real attributable reason other than the infection that could have caused them to shed their hair.”
Telogen effluvium has been known to occur after other infections, including malaria and syphilis, the latter of which can result in what’s called syphilitic alopecia, says Yazdan. But for these COVID-19 survivors and others with temporary hair loss, there likely isn’t just one mechanism behind it. “It could be infection, it could be nutritional, it could be a lot of stress on the body — physical stress and medical stress,” says Yazdan. “Some patients with a lot of emotional stress … if they have a lot of anxiety or just some situational event in their life which is very emotionally taxing that can lead to hair shedding.”
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The pervasive stress associated with this pandemic, he says, is likely playing a major role — and may even be causing hair loss in those without the virus. “I’ve been doing a lot of telehealth hair visits too and a number of my patients haven’t gotten COVID, but they’re shedding their hair,” Yazdan says. “I can’t really figure it out, but then when I probe more, just the fact that they’re in lockdown, stuck at home or worrying about losing their jobs…the life stresses that it’s putting on people I think is contributing.”
On top of the mental anguish, changes to the physical body — such as weight loss — may be influencing it too. “Some of these patients, their appetite is messed up and they’re not nutritionally optimized like they were before the infection. And one of the most important things with healthy hair is proper nutrition and having a well-balanced diet,” he says. “A lot of these patients, they don’t want to eat, they have no appetite and they’re losing weight. And so the hair gets pissed off for those reasons too.”
One positive aspect of this type of hair loss, Yazdan says, is that it’s temporary. “The good thing is that it’s transient. Of all the hair loss conditions that you can have, this is the best form to have because invariably it subsides,” he says. “They say ‘This too, shall pass’ and that’s kind of what happens with this too.”
For those who are experiencing it, he says that reducing stress and optimizing nutrition are both important, but the main advice he gives is simply to remain calm. “People say, ‘What can I do to treat it?’ And I think the best is just the tincture of time,” Yazdan says. “I spend a lot of time reassuring patients that this is a temporary condition…so all the hairs that were shed from telogen effluvium should theoretically, over time, come back slowly. So I tell them, just be patient.”