Sarah’s Health Notes: Thinning Hair? Could Be Down To Covid…

Sarah’s Health Notes: Thinning Hair? Could Be Down To Covid…

The number of people with hair loss – thinning, shedding, even 80% fall out – has escalated over the last 18 months and experts say it mostly affects women.

More than one in five people hospitalised with Covid-19 experienced hair loss within six months of first being infected with the virus, according to a study published in The Lancet earlier this year. The researchers asked 1,655 former in patients in the Jin Yin-tan Hospital in Wuhan to fill in questionnaires about their experiences before leaving hospital and again three to six months later – 22% reported hair loss.

But hair thinning doesn't just affect those who’ve had serious illness. London hairdresser Paul Edmonds has noticed a significant increase in the problem since the pandemic set in. ‘Even clients who haven’t really noticed the illness have had hair shedding, generally about two to three months after they’ve been free of the virus.’

Some people have suffered dramatic loss ‘up to 80%’, according to Simone Thomas, who has treated nearly 200 Covid patients with hair at her Hairdressers & Hair Loss Clinic in Bournemouth – a path she followed originally because of her own experience with hair loss. ‘ICU patients have woken from coma states with their hair falling out. Others have become aware of more hair on their brush or their hair shedding in the shower.’

(Simone’s book Healthy Hair, Happy Body comes out in mid-August; pre-order here.)

The causes of pandemic-related hair loss fall broadly into two camps, which often combine: an inflammatory response to the virus that’s exacerbated by depleted resources to repair the damage throughout the body (as the Wuhan study indicates), and also pervasive anxiety because of the pandemic. 

Post-Covid hair loss is not unexpected, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Temporary hair loss – actually shedding, they emphasise – is normal after a fever or illness. ‘The medical name for this type of hair shedding is telogen effluvium. It happens when more hairs than normal enter the shedding (telogen) phase of the hair growth lifecycle at the same time. A fever or illness can force more hairs into this shedding phase. Most people see noticeable hair shedding two to three months after having a fever or illness. Handfuls of hair can come out when you shower or brush your hair. This hair shedding can last for six to nine months before it stops. Most people then see their hair start to look normal again and stop shedding.’ And just like physical stress, emotional stress can force more hairs than normal into the shedding phase, in about the same time frame.

The underlying problem is that hair and skin don't come top of the immune system’s priority list. ‘When your immune system is under pressure it responds by prioritising the most important bodily functions – and that simply isn’t sending the available nutrients to the hair follicles,’ says Fay Aghani, founder of Kera Health, a range of products for loss of density. And the available nutrients are inevitably compromised, adds Simone Thomas; ‘Covid and other infections deplete the body of vitamins and minerals and also people invariably have gut issues, which affect the absorption of food and also hormone levels.’ (Some 30-40% of people diagnosed with Covid-19 have gut manifestations, as I wrote in this piece.)

While hair loss may be normal in this current situation it can undoubtedly be traumatic, as Fay has experienced in the past. ‘The emotional effects are often devastating. It really affected my confidence tremendously,’ she says. And this brings a double whammy hairwise, becoming a vicious cycle: people whose anxiety levels are heightened because of the pandemic see their hair falling out and become even more stressed and anxious… ‘Only when the stress ends will the excessive hair shedding stop,’ states the AAD.

So that’s the problem. Now to solutions: while it’s ideal to pinpoint underlying weaknesses with every person, as Simone Thomas advocates, most people won’t have that opportunity. So here are some ideas that should help:

1. Remember your hair will grow back: you just have to give it time. It usually returns to normal density within six to nine months.

2. Look after the basics: eat well – choose an anti-inflammatory diet; take exercise – at least a 30-minute walk daily; relax – practise being still for five minutes a day (more is better!); sleep – don’t short-change yourself on this time of rest and repair. (It’s all in The Four Pillar Plan by Dr Rangan Chatterjee.)

3. Consider supplements: pharmacist Shabir Daya recommends these:

4. Support your hair with blunt cutting: If your hair is medium to long and the hair loss isn’t severe, Paul Edmonds suggests blunt cutting so there isn’t a strain on longer wispier ends when you blow dry – always gently on warm, not blasting your locks with top heat.

5. Explore kimchi: these fermented vegetables are stuffed with disease-fighting antioxidants and can make a big difference to your gut, according to experts. Read my feature on it here.