Anyone who has ever had a cat is well-acquainted with hairballs. But humans are susceptible to hairballs, too.
Technically, a hairball is a type of bezoar (pronounced BEE-zore), a mass of indigestible matter found in an animal’s stomach or intestines. Ruminants (cud-chewing animals) — such as cows, oxen, sheep, goats, llamas, deer, and antelopes — are particularly susceptible to bezoars.
Human hairballs — known as “trichobezoars” – are rare in people with a normal digestive tract. In adults, they usually occur in connection with a medical condition such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, renal failure, or a gastric resection. Very rarely, trichobezoars can extend into the small intestine or beyond — a condition known as Rapunzel Syndrome.
The word “bezoar” comes to us — via French and Arabic — from a Persian word meaning “antidote.” In the Middle Ages, bezoars were believed to protect against poison. Famous people possessing them for this purpose reportedly included Queen Elizabeth I. Charles V of France — who had a pathological fear of poison — was said to have owned an enormous blue bezoar from a sea sponge, which was incised with Hebrew letters and a miniature portrait of himself.
Human hairballs occur most often in children and young women who suffer from trichotillomania (chronic hair pulling) or pica (the compulsive craving to eat substances such as dirt or paint that have no nutritional value).
Besides trichobezoars, human bezoars include:
- Lactobezoars: undigested milk (often found in infants);
- Phytobezoars: undigested fruit and vegetable particles;
- Diospyrobezoars: undigested persimmons; and
- Pharmacobezoars: a mass of medications.