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Another COVID side effect: hair loss, Madison woman shares devastating experience

Most patients experience around 50% hair loss
Published: Feb. 26, 2021 at 12:54 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 26, 2021 at 5:52 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A Madison woman beat COVID-19, but months later an unexpected side effect is causing her daily devastation.

Kelly Ryan suffered a tough bout with COVID-19 in October 2020. “It really knocked me out, I mean hard,” Ryan said.

She was briefly hospitalized, then put on oxygen for three weeks. Fortunately, she made a full recovery. Then, about four months after her initial diagnosis, something unexpected started happening.

“When I was taking a shower I kind of started to see a lot more hair in the drain and I was thinking oh that’s kind of odd,” Ryan explained that her long, thick hair was starting to fall out.

This continued for weeks, Ryan said “combing my hair, it was just coming out in big chunks of hair.”

The hair loss has also started to take a toll on her mental health. Ryan said, “it’s really hard not to start the day out with sadness,” and that “it is emotional because your hair is part of your identity. As women, right or wrong, we identify with our hair. I mean, it becomes a part of us.”

She went to see her primary care doctor, who recommended her to UW Associate Professor of Dermatology, Dr. Apple Bodemer. Bodemer knew the diagnosis almost right away.

“There’s a type of hair loss called telogen effluvium which commonly happens after either a physical, physiological or psychological stressor and that can include heart attacks, car accidents, having a baby,” Dr. Bodemer said.

She said getting COVID-19, like Ms. Ryan did, can have the exact same impact on a person’s body.

“She told me that it was, you know, an effect of COVID.”

-Kelly Ryan, post-COVID hair loss patient

Dr. Bodemer explained that hair is a non-essential structure. Therefore, when the body is fighting off infection, hair can go into a pause state. Four to six months later, regrowth starts and that’s when the shedding begins.

“The other tricky thing that’s good news and hard to hear for a lot of people who are experiencing this type of hair loss, is the hair falling out is actually a good sign.”

Dr. Bodemer described further that it “will start building new hair in the hair shaft and when that new hair pushes out the old hair, that’s when the shedding happens.”

“People can lose a significant amount of hair, up to 50% is pretty common.”

-Dr. Bodemer, Dermatologist

Dr. Bodemer has seen a huge up-tick in patients with hair loss because of the pandemic. The influx started in the summer of 2020, 4-6 months after COVID started to hit Dane County especially hard in February and March.

“Some days I was seeing maybe 5 patients a day with hair loss and prior to COVID I was maybe seeing one a week or a couple a week,” told Dr. Bodemer.

The good news, she said, is the hair will grow back in 6 to 12 months. Still, she completely understands why most of her patients, like Ms. Ryan, are upset by the diagnosis.

“It’s a huge signifier for youth, for vitality, beauty. We attach a lot of things to our hair and so when we start to lose our hair it can be very, very devastating,” Dr. Bodemer said.

“The best thing people can do is really look at stress management tools.” Dr. Bodemer specifically recommended, “The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program at UW”.

She has taken it herself and feels like, “it is really world-class. It’s an excellent program that can help people develop new tools for how to get their life back into balance.”

Tactics like breathing exercises, taking supplements and getting scalp massages can help in the growth process too. Rogaine could be an option for some people, but it takes several months to start working and at that point, the hair may be growing back naturally.

Dr. Bodemer says it’s important to see a doctor if hair loss persists for six or more months because telogen effluvium can also be caused by thyroid disease, iron deficiency, or anemia.

Ms. Ryan says prior to her diagnosis, she was unaware that hair loss was a possible side effect of COVID and hopes sharing her story could help others get to the root of their own hair loss.

“Ask a lot of questions. Talk to your doctor. You can feel more secure in knowing that you’re not going through this alone,” Ryan said.

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