Alopecia areata can be treated with medications such as prednisone, which allow the body to stop its immune response.
For centuries, there have been reports of people suddenly seeing their hair turn white from fear or extremely stressful circumstances. According to many accounts, Marie Antoinette had white hair the night before her execution. While this makes for a more dramatic story, evidence suggests that Marie Antoinette’s hair turned white long before that, and the process was not sudden.
Some studies suggest that chronic stress can accelerate the aging process in some people.
The problem with all the reports of people suddenly experiencing their hair turning gray is that this is not possible. White or gray hair starts at the hair shaft, so the hair on your head is already dead material. It cannot suddenly change color unless you visit a local salon. Newly white hair should grow from the root out at the normal hair growth rate, making the nightly process of having fear gray hair an unlikely scenario.
Hyperthyroidism can cause sudden and significant hair loss.
Still, there are many who insist that people got gray hairs in a situation of extreme stress overnight. It is possible that it looks like a person has suddenly woken up with gray hairs. This process requires that the person already have a lot of gray or gray hairs before the change.
What can happen to hair under highly stressful circumstances is that some strands can fall out, in a condition called diffuse alopecia areata. This condition results in significant hair loss and occurs quickly. In such cases, uncolored hair may fall out, while some white or gray hairs remain. This would give the impression that the hair had turned white overnight. In fact, what really happened is that someone lost a lot of colored hair in a short amount of time.
Alopecia areata tends not to occur overnight, but can occur suddenly. It tends to be related to autoimmune diseases, where the body’s cells suddenly see hair cells as foreign matter and attack them.
There are several disorders and conditions that can cause patchy hair loss.
The result can be patches of baldness on the head and, in the worst case, all over the body. Typically, alopecia areata is treated with medications such as prednisone, which allow the body to stop its immune response. Prednisone treatments were not available until the 20th century, perhaps accounting for more earlier “white overnight” stories.
It is unclear what triggers alopecia areata, but it can occur in men, women, and children. In people with an abundance of gray hair, this can make it look as if the hair has suddenly turned white. This would also result in patchy baldness so the hair would look thin. Other causes of sudden baldness include severe cases of ringworm, which was not uncommon in previous centuries, or severe hyperthyroidism, which can cause sudden and significant hair loss.
Reports of people suddenly turning gray are essentially urban legends. It is more reasonable to say that if the hair suddenly appeared white, it was due to significant loss of colored hair.