Can Drug Abuse Cause Hair Loss?

girl suffering from drug abuse and hair loss holding her head

If you have used recreational drugs you may have wondered whether or not drug abuse causes hair loss. It is well known that drug abuse has many negative effects on a person’s physical health. However, people rarely discuss the impact that addiction and chronic substance abuse has on hair health.

Among both men and women, hair is an important part of our culture. Plus, as many people age, hair loss is one of the dreaded side effects that people try extremely hard to prevent. Still, despite the fact that drugs and alcohol have an array of negative effects on the mind and body, many people don’t realize that drug abuse actually can affect your hair health and cause hair loss. In reality, drug and alcohol addiction can affect virtually every part of your body.

How Substance Abuse Affects Hair Health

There are many reasons why drug abuse may lead to hair loss. Furthermore, strange changes in the physical appearance of those with substance use disorder is a very common side effect of drug and alcohol abuse. In fact, unhealthy hair is one of the most common warning signs that someone is suffering from addiction.

One of the most common side effects of substance abuse is anxiety. Anxiety leads to nervous habits that include picking at the skin and actively pulling at the hair.[1] When the hair is pulled out by force, the hair follicle becomes damaged and traumatized. The hair follicle is where the hair grows out of and anchors the hair to the scalp. When it is damaged, it puts the person at high risk of permanently losing the hair. Some drugs that are more likely to cause nervous hair pulling include stimulants, such as:

  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Adderall (and other ADHD medications like Ritalin, Vyvanse, or Concerta)
  • Crack cocaine

People who are actively misusing drugs and alcohol may also neglect their physical appearance. They are so consumed by their addiction that they spend the majority of their time getting and using drugs. As a result, they skip out on basic personal hygiene activities, including taking care of their hair and skin. Hair washing and brushing might wind up very low on someone’s list of priorities when they are suffering from substance use disorder, leading to further damage to the hair and scalp.

What Happens to Neglected Hair?

When hair is not properly taken care of, it affects the scalp as well as the hair itself. Regularly washing hair clears away dead skin and brushing hair removes any strands that are ready to fall out naturally. Not washing the hair can cause dermatological issues on the scalp such as seborrheic dermatitis, more commonly referred to as dandruff.[2] The result of this can cause an increase in itching and picking at the scalp, which in severe cases, damages the hair follicle and leads to permanent hair loss.[3]

However, the relationship between drug addiction and hair loss is far more complicated than simply skipping a few showers. In fact, people suffering from substance use disorder also experience drastic chemical and hormonal changes internally that have negative consequences on hair growth – another reason why drug abuse causes hair loss.

Drug Abuse, Chemical Changes, and other Causes of Hair Loss

Hair growth is a particularly sensitive physiological process. As a result, it is easily disrupted by stress in the body. This is one of the reasons why the effects of addiction on the hair are so detrimental. Chronic abuse of drugs and alcohol forces the body to adapt in order to protect itself from the damage caused by high levels of toxic substances. As addiction progresses, people develop increasing tolerance for drugs and alcohol. This means that the individual needs to use their drug of choice more frequently and at higher doses to achieve the same effects.

Furthermore, studies show that chronic drug abuse at high levels damages the keratin in hair.[4] Keratin is the main protein that makes up the hair. It is what keeps your hair appearing strong and healthy. The damage of keratin due to chemical changes in the body cause hair to become dull, brittle, and weak. As a result, hair might break off, develop split ends, or begin thinning out.

In addition to weakening the hair shaft itself, the chemical changes caused by drug abuse also put high levels of stress in the body and, in some cases, leads to organ damage. However, one way the body copes with this stress is to shed excessive amounts of hair.

Drug Abuse and Stress-Induced Hair Loss

Stressed induced hair loss, known as telogen effluvium, is extremely common in people with substance use disorder.[5] This is because drug abuse leads to high levels of both physical and emotional stress. If you’ve ever been under long periods of stress and noticed extra hair falling out, you know how strongly stress affects your hair.

When the body is under stress, it puts all of its resources into vital organ systems. Since hair is not critical for life, it is very low on the list in terms of receiving the nutrients it needs to stay healthy. When the body needs to focus its attention elsewhere, it puts the hair into a resting state, meaning it stops growing and falls out prematurely.[6]

People who abuse drugs might be overly stressed for a variety of reasons, ranging from emotional or mental struggles to problems within relationships or finances. As a result, stress is just another way that drug abuse causes hair loss.

Luckily, telogen effluvium does not actually damage the hair follicle. This means when drug use ceases and stress levels return to normal, the hair will eventually grow back.[7] However, as long as someone is abusing drugs, stress levels will continue to stay high and they will continuously lose large amounts of hair.

How To Reduce The Negative Consequences of Addiction on Hair Growth

The only way to ensure that addiction stops having negative effects on hair growth is to seek treatment for substance abuse. Even if you don’t think it will happen to you, drug abuse can cause hair loss. However, getting sober will reduce the physical strain being out on the body.

In addition to helping with physical changes, inpatient addiction treatment programs provide comprehensive therapy that includes stress management techniques. By learning new ways to cope with anxiety, stress, and other emotions, you will not only learn to stay sober but to begin improving your hair health as well.

At our addiction treatment center, we have highly trained addiction counselors prepared to help you find the treatment plan that works for you. They will work closely with you to determine a plan of treatment that suits your individual needs. Don’t keep losing hair to addiction, get help today.

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3779907/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3002407/
  3. https://www.healthline.com/health/scalp-picking
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4538045/
  5. https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/hair-loss/drug-induced-hair-loss
  6. https://dermnetnz.org/topics/telogen-effluvium/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8018303/

Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

About

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.