NEWS- Nearly dyeing: Co-ed's hair-raising holiday

When UVA fourth year Sara Gilliam went home to Northern Virginia for Thanksgiving, she made an appointment at her salon to have her blond tresses dyed dark. But her plans for holiday hair turned quickly to a holiday hair horror that landed Gilliam in the hospital.

"I had been wanting to try something different, and I thought it would be fun to go dark," says Gilliam, a Hook intern, who did what women have been doing at salons for generations. "I brought a picture from a magazine," she says.

Once Gilliam arrived at Hairport, her regular Loudoun County salon, her stylist mixed the dye and applied it to her hair. She says all seemed to be going well, and– thrilled with her new dark auburn locks– she headed home to show off the new look to her parents and younger brother.

The next morning, however, there were signs of trouble.

"I noticed my neck was a little sore," she says, "but I thought it was from lying in the sink for so long." But by that night, she says, " I could feel swelling, and my head physically hurt."

When she went to tell her mother she wasn't feeling well, her mother knew a trip to the ER was in order.

"She was so, so swollen around both eyes," says Kathy Gilliam.

Gilliam says things went downhill at the ER, where doctors said she was likely reacting to para-phenylenediamine, a compound found in almost all permanent hair dyes. Experts say reactions to PPD are common– though usually not as severe as Gilliam's– and doctors didn't seem too concerned even after she had "some sort of seizure" as they attempted to insert an IV drip of anti-histamine and steroids to combat the reaction.

"The seizure was so, so scary," says Kathy. "She just started shaking, and everyone ran in. To have your child do it in front of you..."

Though it was frightening, doctors told her the seizure, a subsequent drop in her blood pressure, and irregular breathing were unrelated to the reaction, and they believed once they had her stablilized and an IV inserted in the other arm, she'd be able to go home in a few hours. Her reaction, however, proved more severe than they expected.

"Her breathing got better quickly," says Kathy, "but she still had all the swelling. She was completely round with fluid, just huge." 

Gilliam says doctors told her she couldn't go home until the swelling went down– something that didn't happen until Friday, when Gilliam had already missed Thanksgiving with her family.

As for the hospital's Thanksgiving feast? 

"I really wasn't very hungry," she says.

Is Gilliam's hair-raising story a cautionary tale for all women? How dangerous is hair dye?

 Don't worry about having to go gray gracefully just yet, says local dermatologist Anna Magee, who adds that she's seen many patients react to PPD, but never as severely as Gilliam.

While Magee says PPD is a common cause of "contact dermatitis," in which the skin reacts to an irritant, the vast majority of people are not allergic to PPD. Among those who are, however, the reaction can range from mild redness to blistering and severe swelling, as in Gilliam's case. Anywhere the compound has touched "can be like a burn," says Magee. In addition to hair dye, Magee says PPD is now being added to some temporary henna tattoos popular among children on beach vacations.

"I've seen a couple of children with severe reactions," she says, and if a child is prone to keloid scarring, the temporary tattoo can, in a way, become permanent.

Once someone has been sensitized to PPD with a single exposure, reaction to later exposures can become far more serious. Such is the case with Gilliam, who now recalls having a mild allergic reaction to a henna-based tattoo when she was 13.

Dr. Alfred Huber, a local allergist, says even people who have used hair dye in the past can become allergic at any time.

An allergy occurs when the immune system mounts an "inappropriate response" to a substance, says Huber, who has seen "a couple of dozen" cases of PPD allergy, including one recent case in which a patient's head swelled like Gilliam's. That patient, he said, did not require hospitalization and was simply treated with steroids.

Even the most severe allergic reactions to PPD are "not typically life threatening," says Huber, who recommends that anyone planning to dye his or her hair perform a "patch test," in which they put a small amount of the dye on their skin to see if they react. Home hair dye kits also recommend this approach.

Gilliam says she wishes she'd done such a test, and says her days in the hospital have convinced her to return to her natural color. Thanks to a get well gift certificate from Hairport (which Gilliam says is not to blame for the reaction) she won't even have to pay.

"I like the dark," she says, "but I think this hair color will always make me think about being so sick."

In Gilliam's case, it seems, blonds really do have more fun.

Dark days for Sara Gilliam.