Johnston County woman experiences hair loss after COVID-19

FOUR OAKS, N.C. (WTVD) -- Karen Elizabeth Lee, of Four Oaks, said it's been traumatic losing hair after getting COVID-19.

"Mostly in the shower, I would see chunks of hair falling out and in my hair brush, massive amounts in my hair brush, my pillows, the floor, in my clothes," Lee said. "It was a lot and it was very concerning."

Lee collected a week's worth of hair in a small plastic bag.

"It's a lot of hair and that's not including what is falling on the floor, what is on my clothes, what is in the vacuum cleaner," she said, and she added that her hair loss started about two months after getting COVID-19.

The Johnston County resident said she contracted the Delta variant this summer, even spending time in the hospital. Little did she know her struggle would continue, with her hair loss.

"I don't want to sound vain," she said. "But hair is part of my identity and for a lot of women, it's part of who we are."

Lee has a lot of hair and has been able to mask her hair loss. She joined a social media group for those experiencing hair loss after COVID-19.

She sought medical help and was diagnosed with telogen effluvium.

It can happen after events like infections, major surgeries, hormone disorders, nutritional changes and significant emotional stress.

"Fever can cause people to lose hair," said Dr. David Wohl, UNC Infectious Disease expert. "So I'm not too surprised that there's hair loss after some very small number of people get COVID-19. And to be clear, we're talking about people who get infected. I haven't seen this at all in people who've been vaccinated as a side effect. So again, it seems rare but it could happen."

Dr. John Baratta, co-director of UNC's COVID Recovery Clinic in Chapel Hill, said they've had patients with substantial hair loss after their COVID-19 illness. He said it usually happens three months after the event, such as COVID-19, and lasts up to six months.

He said the exact reason is not fully understood.

"The primary theory relates to the timing of hair follicle release," Dr. Baratta said in an email. "Normally each hair follicle on the human scalp independently goes through several sequential phases. The phases are followed by the shedding of hair from the follicle. 50 to 150 hairs are typically shed each day. However, in telogen effluvium, the proportion of hair follicles entering the shedding phase increases significantly. This leads to a larger volume of hair loss."

He said hair loss should resolve by six months after the illness and grow back normally, although it will take some time to fill in again.

Lee was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

"I don't think I'm trying to persuade people either way to get vaccinated," Lee said. "I respect everybody's decision. But if you don't and you get COVID, if this helps you decide whether to get the vaccine or not. Then take it for what it is."

She's sharing her story in the hopes of helping others.

"We hear a lot about COVID symptoms, the fever, the body aches, loss of taste and smell," Lee said. "But we hear very little about the long-term side effects after COVID and if we hear about them, we're certainly not hearing about hair loss. I was not expecting hair loss. It's not something that is talked about. I wasn't expecting it."

Dr. Baratta said that if somebody's concern is strictly regarding hair loss, it could be helpful to see a dermatologist.

Here are reasons someone may need to seek help from a clinic like UNC's COVID Recovery Clinic.
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