Recently, I noticed that my hair was falling out much faster than normal. And as someone who takes all the precautions on preventing hair loss, it was alarming to see a dozen or more hairs in the sink each time I toweled off. I would see hairs fall every time I scratched my head or even pointed my face down to chop vegetables. A few years ago, it was this kind of super-noticeable shedding that was my wake up call to be proactive against loss in the first place. Since then, it had been years since I last noticed anything more than a single hair falling. Now it was dozens at a time, multiple times a day.
Then I remembered: I had been diagnosed with Covid-19 two months ago, and subsequently recovered. A quick Google confirmed that many other recovered patients are experiencing hair loss after surviving the virus. Most shocking of all was this Instagram video posted by actress Alyssa Milano, shedding hair from simple brushing. She, too, had recently experienced Covid-19 when this was posted (though in her case, hair loss was one of her many lingering symptoms).
It turns out that hair loss is not a particularly uncommon symptom—lots of kinds of stress on your body can prompt what’s called “shock loss”— or telogen effluvium, as it is technically known.
The thing is, our hairs are supposed to fall out, after going through their years-long life cycles. And because your head may have up to 100,000 hairs, it’s usually virtually unnoticeable—those fallen hairs are replaced by brand new hairs that sprout from the same follicle. (People whose hair is thinning are the exceptions hare, and the difference is that their weakened follicles don’t produce new hair to replace what they’re losing.)
With shock loss, more of the hairs are accelerated into the shedding stages of hair growth in a short period of time. And the good news is that those hairs can and should grow back, though it may take some time. (In severe cases, though, it can stay gone, especially if you are already predisposed to shedding.)
Now, look: You do not want to get or spread COVID, and having your hair fall out does not even crack the long list of reasons why. Please, please wear a mask, practice social distancing, and do everything else you can to help stop the spread
But when my hair was falling out, I had many questions on this topic for one of my most trusted sources, Dr. Michele Green, a board-certified dermatologist in NYC. Here is more on shock hair loss as explained by Dr. Green.
GQ: How is shock loss different from natural hair fall or other types of hair loss?
Dr. Michele Green: [With shock loss,] hair follicles do not continuously produce hair, but instead go through carefully timed cycles of growth and shedding. Any major lifestyle changes such as pregnancy, hormonal imbalance, thyroid issues, or significant physical trauma can disrupt that cycle and cause the follicles to shed hair.
So, then, what types of illnesses can cause shock hair loss?
Almost any illness can cause shock hair loss. Because many illnesses can cause some form of stress on the body, and trigger an immune response, you can experience hair loss as a result.
When does the shedding occur? How long does it last, and how long does it take for it to grow back?
It can take six weeks to six months from a stressful event for hair loss to occur. Because hair grows in cycles, not all hairs enter a shedding phase at the same time. Depending on how sick you were, it can take more than six months before hair starts to make a complete recovery. The telogen effluvium phase can last up to six months.
What is the pattern you’re seeing with your patients and hair loss associated with Covid-19?
The hairs that enter the telogen effluvium phase when you are sick with Covid-19 stay in that phase for approximately two to four months. The hair loss typically occurs at the top of the scalp. Due to the many ways Covid-19 affects the body and the overall stress the illness places on the immune system, it is not a coincidence many survivors are now experiencing hair loss.
What action should someone take if they experience shock loss?
It is best to see your dermatologist as soon as you start experiencing excessive shedding. You will have a more successful outcome if you seek treatment sooner rather than later. Shock hair loss can be permanent if the hair loss is severe and appropriate treatment is not done in a timely manner.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Scientists have some ideas.
Originally Appeared on GQ