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Shocking! Woman’s hair turns white overnight (well, almost overnight)

Canities subita — the sudden, seemingly “overnight” onset of white hair — is a medical condition that is 1) non-life-threatening and 2) extremely unlikely to happen to you.

But the condition is also odd and fascinating — one that has, as the physician-author of a medical textbook wrote, “ignited the literary, medical and anthropological worlds for centuries.”

And a documented case of it made the news this month in the medical journal Archives of Dermatology — a case that has deepened the mystery around its cause.

Historic and folkloric
History is rife with tantalizing tales of people’s hair turning white overnight. Perhaps the most famous case is that of “let them eat cake” Queen Marie Antoinette of France, whose auburn tresses allegedly whitened during the night before her guillotining on Oct. 16, 1793.

More likely, guards simply denied the queen her hair dyes while she was imprisoned. But the story has stuck, and canities subita is often colloquially referred to as “Marie Antoinette syndrome.”

Other well-known prisoners whose hair reportedly blanched overnight while awaiting execution include Sir Thomas More in 1534 and Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587. But the condition is also linked to many lesser-known historical figures, including:

• a 13th-century Bavarian duke whose remorse for throwing his wife off a tower for her suspected unfaithfulness turned his hair white (and caused him to found a monastery).
• a 15th-century scholar whose hair suddenly whitened after he heard that a precious compilation of Greek manuscripts he had sent to Italy by sea were lost in a shipwreck.
• Shah Jahan, the 17th-century ruler of India’s Mughal Empire, whose hair quickly turned white after his favorite wife (and mother to 14 of his children), Mumtaz Mahal, died in his arms in 1631. He built the Taj Mahal to hold her tomb.

No wonder fear and grief were long believed to be the cause of this phenomenon.

The medical community takes notice
By the 19th century, tales of “overnight” hair whitening began to appear in the medical literature. In 1851, a physician reported in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal the highly improbable story of how a gambler who had staked all his money ($1,100) on a single card had his hair turn white the next day. (The physician doesn’t make clear, however, whether it was the shock of losing or winning that resulted in this outcome.) In the same article is an account of a 30-year-old man whose hair lost all its color shortly after encountering a grizzly bear.

(The above stories and more can be found in a fascinating 1972 article, “Sudden Whitening of the Hair,” written by a New York dermatologist, J.E. Jelinek, and published in The Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine.)

An autoimmune disorder?
In 1957, a physician wrote about the case of a 63-year-old man whose hair turned white over a period of several weeks after he fell down some stairs. By then, physicians had concluded that canities subita is not the result of “paroxysms of rage, unexpected and unwelcome news, habitual headache, overindulgence in sexual appetite, and anxiety” (as once proposed). Instead, they suspected it was triggered by an autoimmune disorder called alopecia areata, which causes hair to fall out, sometimes rather quickly. About 4.6 million Americans have alopecia areata, but in a tiny subset of them — so the theory goes — the pigmented, but not the de-pigmented (white), hairs fall out. Ouila! Marie Antoinette syndrome.

Which brings us to the current article in the Archives of Dermatology. In it, Swiss doctors report the case of a 54-year-old woman who came to their offices recently with a single circular patch of alopecia areata on her scalp. She was successfully treated with topical steroids — in other words, her hair stopped falling out. Yet within a few weeks, her entire scalp hair had suddenly turned white. So much for the only-white-hairs-left-behind theory.

“She was completely healthy, allegedly did not notice any loss of hair during the change of color, and underwent no frightful experience,” wrote the article’s authors. “In conclusion, the mystery still shrouding this rare syndrome has yet to be explained.”

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