What Happens When You Swallow Hair?

You’re at your favorite restaurant, and
you’re super excited because the appetizers have just arrived. You grab your spoon, ready to dive into your
soup — which is when you notice that there’s a hair in it. You have a few different options here: You could send it back to the kitchen. You could pick out the hair and eat the soup
anyway. Or maybe… just slurp down the soup, hair
and all? As long as it’s a single strand of hair,
it probably won’t do you much harm. A whole clump would be a lot more dangerous — that
could form a giant hairball in your stomach and earn you a trip to the hospital. But in your soup, there’s just one, single
hair. And while it /is/ possible that stowaway bacteria might try and hitch a ride on that
hair — leading to an upset stomach or diarrhea — it’s pretty unlikely. The hair itself is made up of a densely packed
protein called keratin. Humans aren’t capable of breaking down keratin — instead, small
amounts of hair will typically pass right through your body, along with everything else
you can’t digest. So you could probably take your chances on
this lonely hair. But if the chef whips up a full plate of freshly-cut
locks of hair, you might want to seriously reconsider, because large amounts of hair
/will/ get stuck in your stomach. It happens to cats all the time. Cats also can’t digest their hair — or
in this case, fur — and whatever doesn’t pass through their digestive systems builds
up in their stomachs as a firm, dense, hairball, also known as a trichobezoar. Eventually, most cats are able to vomit up
hairballs before they get too bad. Humans will also start to develop hairballs
if they eat a lot of hair — which sometimes happens to people with trichophagia, a compulsion
to eat hair. But instead of being vomited back up, a human’s
hairball just sits in their stomach, getting in the way of everything else their digestive
system is trying to do. In the most extreme cases, the tail of the
hairball can reach down into the small intestine, a condition known as Rapunzel syndrome. Major surgery is pretty much the only way
to get rid of a problem hairball, where the doctor opens up the digestive tract and pulls
out the hairball. So, all things considered, it’s probably
not worth eating a particularly hairy bowl of soup. Thanks for asking, and thanks especially to
all of our patrons on Patreon who keep these answers coming. If you’d like to submit
questions to be answered, or get these Quick Questions a few days before everyone else,
go to patreon.com/scishow. And don’t forget to go to youtube.com/scishow and subscribe!

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