Can hair turn white overnight from fright?

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Dear Cecil: We have a question that has been plaguing us ever since “Ask Andy” declined to answer it some 30 years ago. Can hair turn white overnight from fright? We recall reading somewhere that during stressful events the few remaining dark hairs in a salt-and-pepper head can loosen and come out so that a person appears to be very much whiter. Is this true? We have been let down before, Uncle Cece, so please come through for us. Susan K., MD, Los Angeles, and NWB, Seattle

Cecil replies:

I’m not saying you lack initiative, doc. But if this question had been bugging me for 30 years it might have crossed my mind to head down to the library. Doing so would have turned up a delightful essay on the subject by J.E. Jelinek, a dermatology professor at NYU. Overnight graying or whitening of hair has been reported for centuries, Jelinek says. For almost as long as doctors have been arguing about whether it actually occurs, and if so, how. The hair of Thomas More, for one, is said to have become entirely white the evening before his execution in 1535. Henry of Navarre, later Henry IV of France, supposedly went suddenly white following his escape from the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. But the evidence for such stories is often highly suspect. Legend has it, for instance, that Marie Antoinette’s hair turned white the night before she was beheaded. Several writers clearly state, however, that in fact her hair had lost its color long before. (One claims it turned suddenly white following her failed attempt to flee France in 1791.) Even in modern times reports of rapid graying often turn out to be secondhand or to have originated with doctors who examined the patient months after the supposed event.

The problem with sudden whitening, of course, is that hair is dead tissue. So you’d think it would be incapable of becoming entirely white until it grows out from the roots, a process that takes weeks. Still, as you say, there does seem to be one way that hair can appear to turn gray in a very short period of time. What happens is that a condition called “diffuse alopecia areata” may occur in somebody with a mix of normal and gray hairs. Alopecia can result in sudden, substantial hair loss. For unknown reasons it seems to affect mostly pigmented hairs, leaving white ones untouched. The impression one gets, therefore, is that the patient has become suddenly gray. The sequence of biological events resulting in alopecia is not well understood, but it’s thought emotional stress can contribute to it. Wherefore, chill. If you’re male you’re probably going to lose all that hair eventually, but no sense hurrying the process.

Cecil Adams

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