Sudden Graying of the Hair

A famous German poem, ''Die Fusse im Feuer'' describes how a man's hair turns white overnight. This was not the first dramatic instance of hair suddenly turning gray. Both Thomas More and Marie Antoinette were reported to have their hair turn white on the night before their executions. An article in Hautarzt, the prestigious German dermatology journal, gives a plausible explanation.

You would think that hair can't suddenly turn white because the hair you see is dead. Hair grows slowly from deep in your skin, with the growing hair under the skin pushing the visible ends forward. So the only living hair is underneath the skin, while all the hair that you see above the surface is dead and cannot change color. Hair gets its color from cells containing a pigment called melanin, which is found only in living hairs underneath your skin. You develop gray hair when the living cells underneath your skin to stop making melanin, and this happens slowly with aging. So some hairs will be their normal color, but some, the ones without melanin, will be completely white. So there is no such thing as grey-colored hair. Grey hair is dark hairs with white hairs mixed in.

A medical condition called alopecia areata can cause hair to fall out overnight. One day a person may have a full head of hair, and the next, he may have only half as many hairs as he had the previous day. If you are at an age when you have a lot of white hair mixed in with your dark hairs, you would still appear to have dark hair because the dark hairs are far more visible. A person who loses hair suddenly because of diffuse alopecia areata loses almost exclusively dark hair, but not the white hair, because the disease causes mostly the dark hairs to fall out. Then the hair would appear to have turned white overnight.

The phenomenon of sudden graying of the hair in the poem ''Die Fusse im Feuer'' by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer. Hautarzt, 2002, Vol 53, Iss 7, pp 492-494. FA Bahmer. Bahmer FA, Zent Krankenhaus, Dermatol Klin, St Jurgen St 1, D-28205 Bremen, GERMANY

Checked 6/1/14

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