You've probably heard about how COVID-19 can affect your taste and smell. And cause fevers and chills. But many people who've had the virus are also experiencing something else: hair loss. It can happen in people who’ve recovered from the infection as well as those dealing with long COVID.
We talked to Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine at the University at Buffalo, and Dr. Timothy Murphy, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Medicine at University at Buffalo, to break down why some people might experience hair loss after having a COVID-19 infection. And how long it can take to grow back.
Back up. Can COVID-19 cause hair loss?
It’s complicated. Many people have reported losing hair after having COVID-19. And according to one survey, 423 out of 1,567 people reported experiencing hair loss during long COVID. And a study that followed patients hospitalized with COVID-19 reported that 22% experienced hair loss. The condition is called telogen effluvium. And a signature sign is when hair falls out in clumps. Which can start happening two to three months after recovering from COVID-19.
Here’s what happens: The hair growth cycle has three phases. Anagen (the growing phase), catagen (the transition phase), telogen (the resting phase, when hair starts to shed). Normally, about 90% of the hair on the scalp is in the anagen phase while 10% is in the telogen phase. Telogen effluvium occurs when there’s more hair than usual in the resting (telogen) phase of the hair cycle. And while it’s commonly referred to as hair loss, it’s technically hair “shedding,” said Dr. Murphy. Which, spoiler, means it usually grows back.
Why does hair loss after COVID-19 happen cause hair loss?
Telogen effluvium after COVID-19 has two main causes: physiological stress and emotional stress. “COVID, in the more severe cases, can be a major stress to the body systems,” Dr. Murphy said. And that stress is what causes the hair loss after COVID-19. He said that telogen effluvium is also associated with fevers, but you can still experience hair loss even without coming down with a fever.
And even though it’s been happening to people who have had COVID-19, both docs pointed out that it’s not actually a COVID-specific symptom. It can happen after recovering from any severe illness. “It's more that COVID could make you quite ill,” Dr. Russo said. “And some people lose hair as a result of that.”
And telogen effluvium doesn’t only happen to people who’ve gotten sick. Stress from the pandemic (you might be familiar) has contributed to a reported rise in hair loss. Think: grief, financial stress, and stressful news.
If I experience hair loss after COVID-19, how long will it take to grow back?
Telogen effluvium usually lasts three to six months. Then the hair can take six to nine months to grow back. But the exact length of time it will take varies from person to person, Dr. Murphy said.
For some, it can take even longer. According a report by the University of Utah, it could take up to two years before the shedding stops. In this case, it’s called chronic telogen effluvium. And it can happen due to prolonged periods of physiological stress associated with long COVID.
Are there any treatments for hair loss after COVID-19?
In most cases, it will eventually grow back on its own, and the best treatment is patience and stress management. In cases of telogen effluvium in long COVID, no more than half of hair will shed.
COVID-19 causes a lot of unusual symptoms. And some people who’ve had it may experience hair loss. It’s a frustrating experience. But hair loss after COVID-19 isn’t typically permanent — it usually grows back with time.
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