Long-term drug abuse is associated with numerous medical, psychological, and emotional complications. But it’s often the physical side effects of drug use that push a person to seek medical attention, long before they’re ready to enter treatment for their addiction issues

Hair and skin problems are among the most common side effects of chronic drug abuse. Yet many people don’t realize just how many prescription and street drugs can cause skin problems and thinning hair. 

Let’s look at some of the common causes of drug-related hair problems and explore some of the prescription and street drugs that can lead to damaged or thinning hair.

Why Do Drugs Cause Hair Loss?

Many recreational drugs and prescription medications accumulate in a person’s hair and stay there for a long time. Hair follicle drug tests can detect illicit and prescription drug abuse for up to 90 days. In many cases, they can even identify the type of drug a person has taken during that time—cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, benzos, and opiates can all be detected on hair follicle drug tests. 

Because drugs often accumulate in the hair, they can also impact the structures and processes that control hair growth, texture, appearance, and shedding. Drug-induced hair loss is thought to be caused by a drug’s damaging effects on the hair follicle matrix and its disruption of the normal hair growth cycle. This can cause excessive hair shedding, thinning in individual hair strands, and damage to the hair’s cuticle (the protective layer around the hair that gives it smoothness and shine).

Recreational Drugs that Cause Hair Loss

In a Turkish study from 2015, hairs from people who abused cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and LSD were closely studied for “ultra-structural alterations” and abnormalities. While the study was small, it revealed the following trends: 

  • Hair samples from people who abused cocaine showed damage to the keratinized structures of the hair (associated with brittleness and breakage) and abnormalities in the hair cuticles. Additionally, there were abnormalities in the shape of the hair shaft, and the individual strands were thin when compared to the hair of people who weren’t abusing drugs. 
  • In heroin users, the hair showed damage to the cuticle and abnormalities in cuticle cells, as well as large pores over the cuticle surface. 
  • In LSD users, the hair’s cuticle was damaged or destroyed in nearly all hair samples. Hair fibers were also considered fragile and brittle. 

Other commonly abused drugs that are linked to hair issues and hair loss include amphetamines, methamphetamines, and ecstasy.

Hair Loss from Prescription Drugs

Some prescription drugs are associated with a type of hair loss known as telogen effluvium–rapid hair shedding that can affect up to 50% of the scalp. This occurs because the medication interferes with the normal hair growth and shedding cycle, forcing hairs in the telogen phase (the resting phase, i.e., no longer growing) to fall out prematurely.  Fortunately, this hair loss is typically temporary and reversible; normal hair growth returns within 3-6 months after a person stops taking the medication. 

Anagen effluvium is a far less common type of hair loss that occurs when a medication interferes with the anagen (or active) stage of the hair growth cycle. When the anagen phase is disrupted, hairs that are actively growing fall out prematurely. Anagen effluvium can cause noticeable hair loss within a few weeks of starting a medication and can affect head hair, body hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes. It is most commonly associated with chemotherapy cancer medications and exposure to toxic chemicals. 

What medications cause hair loss?

A variety of prescription drugs and medications can cause hair loss and temporary alopecia: 

  • Antidepressants
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Chemotherapy medications
  • Thyroid medications
  • Weight loss drugs
  • Retinoids (drugs containing vitamin A)
  • Immunosuppressants
  • Anticonvulsants (drugs to treat epilepsy and seizures)
  • Beta-blockers and other hypertensives
  • Birth control pills

Signs of Drug-Induced Hair Loss

Hair loss that results from drug abuse or prescription drugs can go unnoticed, especially if the drug’s effects interfere with your vision, energy levels, attention span, or concern for personal hygiene. 

Here are some things to look out for:

  • Significant increase in the amount of hair that comes out in your hairbrush
  • More hair in the shower drain after bathing or on your pillow after sleep
  • Your hair feels less thick
  • Your scalp is more visible, especially on the top of your head
  • Your eyelashes and eyebrows appear thinner

If you notice these changes in the health and density of your hair, you may be experiencing drug-related hair loss.

Treatment Options for Drug-Related Hair Loss

If you’re experiencing hair loss from prescription medication use, the first step is to talk to your doctor. There may be treatment options that will reverse your hair loss and prevent it from getting worse. You may also be able to switch to a similar medication that carries a lower risk of hair loss as a side effect. 

Hair loss from recreational drug abuse is harder to address. Substance use disorder can cause several psychological and behavioral side effects that may contribute to or cause hair loss, including extreme stress, poor hygiene, poor nutrition, and lack of self-care. Addiction is also closely associated with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia; these conditions can exacerbate drug use and contribute to worsening hygiene and nutrition, which in turn contributes to hair and skin issues. Oftentimes, medications that treat these illnesses contribute to hair loss, as well. 

How Can You Reverse Hair Loss Caused by Drug Abuse?

If you’re struggling with drug addiction and are concerned about its physical side effects, the first step to healing is entering a medically supervised detox facility to get sober. Once the drugs are out of your system, you can focus on intensive addiction therapy, which can help you formulate coping strategies and goals for your recovery. 

Steps to Recovery Behavioral Health can help you navigate detox and addiction treatment in a safe, serene environment. Contact us today to start your journey: 866-994-1969.