When your baby is crying uncontrollably, you run through your mental checklist: hungry? Tired? In need of a diaper change? Turns out there’s one more item you should add to make sure your baby’s tiny fingers and toes aren’t the problem.
Hair tourniquet syndrome happens when a fiber – usually a hair, but sometimes a thread from clothing – becomes tightly wrapped around a baby’s appendage, causing pain and swelling. It can lead to damage or even loss of the body part if untreated. While that makes a hair tourniquet sound pretty scary, it can easily be treated or avoided altogether if moms and dads know what they’re looking for.
How do hair tourniquets happen?
It’s hard to imagine something as fragile as a hair could get so tightly wound around a baby’s finger that it could cause damage, but it’s possible. And it tends to happen on parts of the body that are wiggly and in contact with clothing.
“The condition is caused by a hair in an area where there’s friction against the skin, like in the pajamas, diaper, a mitten or a sock,” said Prasanthi Reddy, MD, medical director and president of Rainbow Pediatric Center and medical staff member at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. “It can happen with movement of the fingers, toes or genitalia in an enclosed area. We know postpartum moms may experience more hair loss, which can also increase the risk.”
Dr. Reddy said it’s rare for babies to experience hair tourniquet syndrome, but it’s not uncommon to spot a hair loosely wrapped around a tiny hand or foot. And while it’s most likely to happen to infants, older kids could experience it too.
“The age group most at risk for finger and toe hair tourniquets is birth to 2 years, and on the genitals, they occur most often in ages 4 months to 6 years,” she said. “In 210 cases in the U.S. in 2020, 44% occurred on the penis, 40% on the toes, 9% on the fingers, and 7% in other areas.”
Red digits are red flags.
In the few cases of hair tourniquet syndrome Dr. Reddy has treated, the parents all said the first sign was their baby crying and being inconsolable. If nothing is working to calm your little one, it’s time to strip him or her down and check limbs and the diaper area for anything that looks abnormally red or swollen.
“You may not even be able to see the hair, so what you’re looking for are swollen extremities,” Dr. Reddy said. “If there’s no significant swelling and you can clearly see the hair, you can try to gently loosen it with your fingers and break it. Don’t be too aggressive in trying to remove it, as this can cause more swelling or tightening. Either go to the emergency room or call your pediatrician.”
Simple checks change everything.
Even though hair tourniquets are extremely rare, parents who know about them are still likely to worry. Good news: Dr. Reddy said two easy steps can prevent them altogether.
“I tell parents to take a look inside mittens, socks, pajamas and diapers to remove hairs or any long fibers they see,” she said. She added that making a little infant massage with lotion part of your baby’s bedtime routine can give you the opportunity to inspect their body for potential hazards.
“Hair tourniquets sound scary, but as long as you’re aware of them, they’re very easy to prevent,” said Dr. Reddy. “It’s also completely reversible when caught early enough and won’t cause permanent damage.”
If your child has a hair tourniquet and needs care immediately, Wolfson Children’s Emergency Centers are open 24/7 and specialize in treating children when minutes matter. There are six locations across Northeast Florida, so you can find help close to home.