About three months after a severe Crohn’s flare, I began shedding a lot of hair. I tried to ignore it at first, but the shedding continued to increase. Along with that, my level of panic skyrocketed. My college graduation was a few months away and I pictured my graduation cap covering my nearly bald head (I was feeling especially dramatic at this time).
Initially, I was convinced that medication was causing my hair loss. I was taking Humira, a biologic medication for Crohn’s disease featured in countless TV commercials, and was watching diligently for any possible side effects. Hair loss is listed as a potential side effect of Humira, but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions and stop taking a medication that was keeping my Crohn’s inflammation at bay. So there wasn't much I could do except watch a nice bald spot begin forming at the back of my head.
Showering was my worst nightmare. Every time I washed my hair, I watched as clumps fell out and swirled towards the drain. I avoided showering as much as possible (as much as was socially acceptable) and rocked a short haircut, but these tactics didn’t make much of a difference. This shedding went on for about a month, then slowly subsided. I still continued to lose hair for a few months, but at a much less alarming rate.
Right around the time that I was strongly considering stealing my father's Rogaine, I spoke to a relative who practices dermatology. She was familiar with Humira, as she prescribes it to several of her patients for psoriasis. I expressed my concerns that Humira was causing my hair loss, and she told me that I was likely experiencing telogen effluvium. My first impression of this term was that it would be a great spell in Harry Potter. After my aunt did her best to explain telogen effluvium to me, I Googled it, read several articles (I found this article very informative), and became far more optimistic about my situation.
Telogen effluvium, by definition, is a temporary condition in which hair falls out after a stressful experience. In my case, my rapid weight loss, poor nutrition, and high levels of inflammation caused significant stress on my body, disrupting my normal hair growth cycle. Our hair cycles between a growth phase, known as the anagen phase, and a resting phase, known as the telogen phase. At any given time, 80% to 90% of our hair is in the anagen phase, while the remaining hairs are resting in the telogen phase. A stressful experience can shift more hair from the growth stage to the resting stage. Hair typically stays in the resting stage for two to three months, then falls out to make room for new hairs to grow. Under normal circumstances, a person sheds about 100 hairs a day. But when telogen effluvium occurs and more hairs are shifted to the resting phase, a person will experience significant shedding all at once. This accurately explains my hair loss a few months after my Crohn's flare.
Our bodies are exceptionally smart. When the body is put under a considerable amount of stress, it has to allocate its limited energy to the most important functions, like internal organ function. Unfortunately, hair, skin, and nail growth are some of the nonessential functions that are temporarily ignored while the body tries to restore balance. Losing hair definitely takes a toll on confidence and vanity, but my body did what it had to do to keep me alive and functioning during a stressful time.
People living with chronic illness will likely experience telogen effluvium after a period of high stress on the body. Losing hair is a stressful event in and of itself, especially if you are unsure of its cause. I felt a considerable amount of anxiety when I began losing my hair, but discovering the likely cause alleviated many of my fears. Medications can also cause hair loss, so it's important to do your own research and talk to your doctor about your concerns.
As with everything in life, telogen effluvium will not last forever. I'm still insecure about my hair, but I’m optimistic that within a year or two most of my hair will grow back. If you are experiencing any type of hair loss caused by illness, chances are you notice it far more than anyone else does. Remember that new hair growth is a sign of health, and that is something to celebrate.