In June 2020, Hannah (who wants to be identified only by her first name) was standing outside of her family home with her dad when he told her to stand still. He snapped a picture of the back of her head—there were bald patches everywhere. “I had a mini panic attack,” she tells me over Zoom. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m literally going bald.'”
Hannah believes that she contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 (she doesn’t have a positive test to prove it because testing wasn’t widely available at the time); she’s one of the 30 million people who’ve been diagnosed with the virus in the U.S. She’s also a member of another group—experts call them the COVID-19 long-haulers. These are the people who are still dealing with COVID-19 symptoms, months after they’ve tested negative for the virus. Think: shortness of breath, head-splitting migraines, a prolonged loss of their sense of taste and smell. They’re still kind of a mystery—experts don’t know why they’re still dealing with symptoms or how to put those symptoms to an end.
Breauna O’Shea, a 19-year-old from Chesapeake, Virginia and one of the nine long-haulers I interviewed for this piece, describes days when she could barely get out of bed because she was so exhausted and nights when she would sob for hours because of nausea and pain. Her headaches can get so intense that her room needs to be pitch black; even the light from her phone can cause sharp jolts of pain. When she brushes her hair, chunks fall to the ground. Before the pandemic, Breauna tells me she’d been in two bad car wrecks. “I’d rather get in another car accident than deal with the symptoms I have now.”
Excessive hair loss is one of these long-term COVID-19 symptoms, but in articles and scientific studies about long-haulers, it’s rarely mentioned. In fact, all of the women I spoke with either found out about the connection between hair loss and COVID-19 through long-hauler support groups on Facebook or through me, when I reached out for an interview request. Aside from their symptoms, these women also have another thing in common: They feel like their hair loss hasn’t been taken seriously by people around them, including doctors.
The medical community isn’t 100 percent sure that there’s a single reason behind hair loss in COVID-19 long-haulers. It could be caused by the intense stress your body goes through when it’s fighting the virus, or by the emotional, mental, and physical stress of dealing with COVID-19 symptoms or trying to stay afloat during a pandemic. A recent study shows that there was a 400 percent spike this past summer in COVID-related hair loss in a racially diverse neighborhood in NYC. “It is unclear if the increase in cases is more closely related to the physiological toll of infection or extreme emotional stress,” said one of the study’s co-authors.