Can Your Hair Turn White From Fright?
With Halloween fast approaching, it’s the season for horror, fright and fear. A popular tale told in many cultures is that a person’s hair can turn white overnight from excessive fear. Is it the stuff of legend, folklore and myth, or is there any science to back it up?
Can Your Hair Turn White From Fear?
The image of a person’s hair turning white from fear persists in popular culture, literary works and even a few older medical journals. Despite this persistence, it’s impossible for a person’s hair to radically change color overnight. This is because once hair leaves your head, it’s dead and can’t be influenced by any psychological or physiological processes inside your body (like scares or shocks).
However, the mythology does have some roots in science. While extreme fear or being frightened can’t turn your hair white overnight, there is a medical condition that could make people think it has.
Roots In Science?
There is an autoimmune condition, known as alopecia areata, which can attack hair follicles. This disorder causes pigmented hair such as black, brown, red, or blonde to fall out, completely leaving the gray and white non-pigmented hairs. Because stress is a factor in autoimmune diseases, it can trigger the disorder, making a person appear as if their hair turned completely white ‘overnight’.
Because we’ve only recently begun to understand autoimmune diseases, it’s no surprise that the myth has a long history. The first documented case of sudden hair whitening was in the Talmud in 83 A.D. The victim was a 17 year old boy who had been appointed chief of the main Israeli Talmudic academy. He claimed his sudden white hair was “a consequence of strenuous studying.”
Marks, James G; Miller, Jeffery (2006). Lookingbill and Marks’ Principles of Dermatology (4th ed.). Elsevier Inc. ISBN 1-4160-3185-5.
American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Alopecia Areata. Dermatologic Disease Database.
Alopecia Areata at Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy Professional Edition