What to Know About Hair Tourniquet Syndrome

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on July 16, 2023
3 min read

Hair tourniquet syndrome occurs when a strand of hair or thread wraps tightly around a body part such as the fingers, toes, or genitals.

It’s a relatively rare condition that’s more common in babies and toddlers. If left untreated, hair tourniquet syndrome can cause pain, long-term injury, and loss of function in the affected body part.

Hair tourniquet syndrome often occurs in young children. The condition can affect any body part but is most common in the toes, fingers, and genitals. Cases of hair wrapped around fingers usually occur from birth to 19 months of age, while penile hair tourniquets are most common from 4 months to 6 years of age.‌

Your baby may have hair tourniquet syndrome if they have redness, discoloration, or swelling at their extremities, or are crying more than usual. Hair tourniquet syndrome develops when hairs or threads wrap around the affected area, limiting blood supply and causing pain.

It’s unknown exactly what makes the hair or thread wrap around the appendage. One possible explanation is that repeated movement of the body part in a restricted space — toes in pajamas, for instance — causes the hair to wrap around tightly.‌

The hair may be hard to see because once it cuts through or gets embedded in the flesh, the surrounding skin can grow over the wound. Stay alert to signs of increased discomfort, irritability, and crying.

While the cause of hair tourniquet syndrome in babies and toddlers is unknown, there are several risk factors including:

  • ‌Wearing mittens
  • Wearing older or frequently washed clothes
  • Autism
  • Trichotillomania, or compulsive hair-pulling

The best way to prevent the condition is to reduce your baby’s contact with loose hairs. After birth, 90% of mothers experience excessive hair loss due to hormone changes.

Keep your hair tied up when changing or playing with your baby and brush it regularly to remove loose strands. Check your baby’s toes and fingers for the symptoms described before. Avoid dressing your baby in mittens or reusing old clothes when possible.

Hair tourniquet syndrome is treated by removing the hair, which a doctor usually does on inspection.‌

If there's minimal swelling and clear visibility, you can remove the hair at home by finding a loose end and slowly pulling it with gloved fingers or forceps. If you can’t see a loose end but can see a hair knot, break the knot at one end and unwrap the hair as normal. It can take multiple attempts to free the hair, which may break during the process.‌

Contact a doctor if you can’t remove the hair yourself. The doctor will do a full examination of your baby under good lighting. If the hair is visible, they will remove it using medical scissors and forceps. The doctor may use a hair removal agent to dissolve the strand if the hair is stubborn.‌

Surgery under general anesthesia may be necessary if the hair is stuck very deep. The earlier the hair is removed, the better the long-term outlook for your baby.‌

Hair removal will kick-start blood circulation in the affected area. Your baby’s health may improve within minutes but in severe cases, signs of the injury can take much longer to heal.

If left untreated, hair tourniquet syndrome can become dangerous. The condition can lead to:

  • ‌Trapped fluid and excess swelling
  • ‌Nerve injury
  • ‌Lack of blood flow in the affected area
  • ‌Tissue Ischemia, or a shortage of oxygen
  • ‌Loss of function in the affected area

The most serious issues occur in hair tourniquets in the genitals. The penis may develop gangrene or urethral fistulas, which are abnormal openings in the urinary tract.‌

In extreme cases, amputation may be necessary.

After successful hair removal, you should treat the area as you would other wounds by:

  • ‌Following the doctor’s instructions for dressing the affected area.
  • Waiting two to four days before bathing your baby.
  • Not soaking your baby in a tub or pool.
  • ‌Feeding your baby foods rich in vitamins, proteins, and fiber.
  • Massaging the affected area with petroleum jelly or baby lotion.
  • ‌Giving your baby pain medication if it's prescribed by a doctor.

If your baby develops a fever, swollen glands, or there's pus at the affected site, contact a doctor immediately.