A hair tourniquet occurs when a strand of hair wraps around a body part and cuts off circulation. Hair tourniquets can damage the nerves, skin tissue, and function of that body part.

Hair tourniquets may affect the fingers, toes, genitals, or any other appendage. A “hair” tourniquet can also be caused by a thin piece of thread or string.

Hair tourniquets usually only affect small babies because their appendages are so small that a hair can wrap around them. Postpartum mothers tend to lose a lot of hair, increasing a baby’s exposure to hairs.

What are the symptoms?

Hair tourniquets become very painful, so a baby who has one will likely cry a lot. Looking for a hair tourniquet is a unique but important addition to any parent or caregiver’s checklist when helping a crying baby.

If your baby is crying or seems in pain, and you’ve tried the standard feed-change-sleep routine, it’s a good idea to look over the whole body for a hair tourniquet.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • excessive crying
  • red or discolored finger, toe, genitalia, umbilical stump, or tongue
  • mild to severe swelling in the appendage
  • an indentation or groove on the appendage, even if no hair is visible

Hair tourniquets are dangerous if they go unnoticed for too long. Babies risk injuring or losing the affected body part. Hair tourniquets can also cause a complication called ischemia, which is a lack of blood flow to the affected area.

Caught early, hair tourniquets are easily fixed. Immediate medical care is essential to:

  • save the appendage
  • prevent the hair from fully cutting into the skin
  • prevent new skin from growing over the hair and embedding it

Picture of a hair tourniquet

How to remove a hair tourniquet

The only way to fix a hair tourniquet is to remove the hair completely. This can be difficult to do if the area is swollen or the strand of hair is thin and difficult to see.

If you don’t succeed within minutes, take your baby to a doctor right away.

The easiest way to remove a hair tourniquet may be with the use of a depilatory cream (such as Nair) or another hair removal cream with the active ingredients calcium hydroxide, sodium hydroxide, or calcium thioglycolate. But only try this if the skin around the affected area isn’t bleeding or broken.

To remove a hair tourniquet:

  1. Take your baby to an area with good lighting. You may even want to ask your partner or a friend to shine a flashlight on the affected area.
  2. Locate the hair.
  3. Apply the depilatory cream directly onto the hair.
  4. Wait 5 minutes.
  5. Wash the depilatory cream off with warm water.
  6. Apply a disinfectant such as hydrogen peroxide to the affected area.
  7. If the appendage is still red, swollen, or grooved, and your baby is still in pain, seek medical help immediately. Emergency medical care is essential to protect your child from severe complications.

It may also be possible to remove the hair using needle-nosed tweezers. But this method can be difficult if the hair is thin or the area is extremely swollen.

Use caution so as not to puncture the skin or wrap the hair more tightly around the area.

Seeking help

Hair tourniquets can lead to serious complications that get worse as time goes on.

See a doctor immediately if you suspect your child has a hair tourniquet. Remember the hair or thread often isn’t visible around the swollen area.

The doctor will either try breaking the hair and releasing the constriction with a blunt tool or may need to surgically remove the hair.

The doctor will decide if any additional treatment is necessary based upon potential nerve damage or dead tissues.

Recovering from a hair tourniquet

After the hair is removed, blood will begin circulating in the appendage again and the area will heal steadily. In some cases, everything will be back to normal within minutes. In extreme cases, the effects of the injury will be present for years.

If you try using a depilatory cream at home, be sure to look for any allergic reactions and to wash the area thoroughly afterward.

Preventing hair tourniquets

Hair tourniquets are quite rare, but you should still be aware of their potential and take steps to prevent them:

  • Brush your hair frequently to remove loose hairs that could fall onto your baby.
  • Keep your hair tied back when you are changing, bathing, or playing with your baby.
  • Remember to check your baby’s toes and fingers for signs of hair tourniquet.

Wearing mittens and frequently washed, older clothes with loose threads may increase the risk of a loose thread creating a hair tourniquet.

The takeaway

A hair tourniquet is a rare but serious medical condition that mostly occurs in babies.

Immediate removal of the hair is essential to protect the affected area and prevent serious complications. The earlier you catch it, the better.

It’s possible to attempt treating a hair tourniquet at home, but if symptoms don’t improve within minutes, see a doctor right away.