These days, you’re probably keeping an eye out for any symptom that might be a sign of COVID-19 (a.k.a. coronavirus), like coughing or high fever. And you might’ve recently heard that hair loss has been correlated with COVID-19 too.
But don’t rush off to count the hairs on your pillow and assume you’re positive for COVID-19 just yet. Even if your hair is falling out faster than before, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have COVID-19. But it may mean that you need to be paying closer attention to your health—both physical and mental.
Let’s break down the relationship between COVID-19 and hair loss.
According to Today, 27% of surveyed COVID-19 patients reported a startling increase in hair loss while they were recovering. The article also cites the director of the Dermatology COVID-19 Registry, Dr. Esther Freeman, who said that COVID-19-related cases of hair loss are on the rise.
While these facts are concerning, they don’t prove that COVID-19 causes hair loss—just that COVID-19 patients tend to experience hair loss. You might read that sentence and ask yourself what the difference is between “causing hair loss” and “experiencing it” during a COVID-19 diagnosis…especially if both result in you losing hair.
The answer to this question is telogen effluvium, the medical name for a type of hair loss that’s temporary but frighteningly rapid. Telogen effluvium causes hair follicles to skip some of their natural stages of growth, rushing them into the telogen (or resting) phase and making them fall out prematurely. The condition can cause hair to fall out at up to three times the normal rate.
Telogen effluvium typically happens a few months after a physically taxing or stressful event (like getting surgery, losing a lot of weight, or giving birth) that prompts the hair to go into a resting phase. This is because your body dedicates the energy it might otherwise have used to grow hair to handle more essential tasks, like recovering. That means that the timing of these reports (about three months after the peak of the pandemic) suggests that hair loss is an unfortunate side effect of recovery, rather than a sign that you’re about to get sick. That said, some cases of a similar condition called anagen effluvium, a temporary condition in which the hair falls out in the growth phase instead of the resting phase, have also been reported by coronavirus patients.
Ultimately, we’re far from knowing everything about COVID-19 and why this virus causes hair loss with such frequency.
Even if COVID-19 doesn’t directly cause hair loss, new research may have you wondering if the opposite might be true—in other words, if having male pattern baldness means you’re more likely to get the worst of COVID-19.
Not caught up on the latest studies? Let’s get you up to speed. Researchers have noticed that men with androgenetic alopecia are more likely to be hospitalized with severe COVID-19 than other men around the same age. They’ll need more time to determine the underlying cause, but the link is understandably worrying for guys with hair loss.
We tapped Keeps Medical Advisor and hair loss expert Dr. Raman Madan to help put the new data into perspective.
“At this point, I do think there is enough information to say men with more severe hair loss may be more at risk for COVID-19,” Dr. Madan says. “That being said, it has to be noted that these are all observational studies with small sample sizes. This data will need to be explored further before we can draw any firm conclusions.”
Telogen effluvium isn’t just brought on by physical stress, like battling a severe illness. It can also be provoked by emotional stress, the exact kind many of us are experiencing a lot more often these days. Even if you haven’t experienced anything as distressing as losing a loved one, the stress of just living through this pandemic might be more than enough to cause some increased shedding.
This explains why dermatologists report seeing many new hair loss cases from people who didn’t have COVID-19. It could also explain why you’re losing more hair lately. (This is especially true for women in their 40s and 50s, who are more likely to develop telogen effluvium.)
But that’s not the only potential cause. Losing more hair could be a side effect of certain medications, a sign of a vitamin deficiency or thyroid issue, or even the first sign of male pattern baldness (a.k.a. androgenic alopecia). For a full breakdown, check out our guide to what causes hair loss.
Whether your hair loss is caused by COVID-19, pandemic stress, or something else, you probably have the same question: “How do I make it stop?” Luckily, in the case of telogen effluvium, all you need to do is wait. This type of hair loss is temporary for most people and typically resolves itself within six months. There’s no way to know if COVID stress will stretch out that waiting period, but you can rest assured that your hair will return to its normal rate of hair loss at some point.
We know “just wait” may not be exactly what you want to hear, and there are some things you can do to help speed up the process. The most important (and most obvious) thing you can do is manage your stress, but that’s way easier said than done these days. Getting regular exercise and eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of protein will not only help keep stress under control, but also give your hair growth a boost. Taking a supplement like biotin can also help.
If that’s not enough, consider trying minoxidil (generic Rogaine®), an FDA-approved over-the-counter medication for male pattern baldness that’s also an effective treatment for telogen effluvium. As you might guess, having male pattern hair loss makes dealing with telogen effluvium even worse, because the hair lost to telogen effluvium can grow back thinner than it was before. Starting minoxidil sooner rather than later makes this less likely. Women can also use minoxidil safely so long as they’re not pregnant or nursing.
However if you do have early male pattern baldness, the telogen effluvium can make it worse as the new hair grows back thinner.
The research on COVID-19 is far from finished, so it’ll be a long time before we can say for certain if it does or doesn’t make hair fall out faster. But that doesn’t mean you should wait to treat your hair loss—safe, effective treatments are available. Just be sure to talk to your doctor if you think you might have COVID-19, and before starting any new treatments.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash