Health & Wellness

'My head was huge': TODAY editor has frightening allergic reaction to hair dye

Mish Whalen, a TODAY senior multimedia editor, recently had a frightening experience after coloring her hair.

Waking up with your head the size of Charlie Brown is downright scary, but that’s what happened to me after a recent visit to a salon. I missed two days of work and I was very embarrassed when I came back.

The first and only time I ever had my hair colored before this was on TODAY during an “Ambush Makeover” segment in 2015 — no problems there.

Nathan Congleton / TODAY
Mish Whalen is a senior multimedia editor at TODAY.com.

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I once had a bad allergic reaction to a henna tattoo and I am also allergic to shellfish, tree nuts and raw fruit. But since I didn’t have any bad reactions to hair dye after that makeover two years ago, I thought I was in the clear. I wasn’t.

Last December, a friend who owns a salon dyed my hair a chestnut and light brown color. I didn’t do a patch test because I assumed I’d be OK.

There were no problems during the visit. I had my hair colored on a Saturday and I was fine the whole next day. But 24 hours later, my head started itching really badly everywhere — my scalp, my forehead. It was uncomfortable.

I went to bed and when I woke up the next day, my head was huge. I really did feel like I looked like Charlie Brown.

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Courtesy of Mish Whalen
24 hours after getting hair dyed, Whalen woke up with her head severely swollen and a red scalp.

My head was red and itchy and there were hives and burning. I just had an overall feeling of being sick. The worst part was my head was so big that it made me feel like I looked disfigured. I didn’t want to leave the house.

I immediately called my doctor and she said to come in right away. I had to start taking steroid pills as soon as possible and take Benadryl on top of that. I was literally a zombie for two days — it was hard to function. I think I lay in bed for two days and my head really, really itched.

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Courtesy of Mish Whalen
About four days after the allergic reaction, Whalen's head was still swollen and she has big hives under her eyes.

My doctor confirmed this was due to an allergic reaction to the hair dye.

Hair dyes contain lots of chemicals that could lead to skin irritation and hair loss, but one ingredient in particular — p-phenylenediamine, or PPD — has been implicated more prominently in allergic reactions, the Food and Drug Administration notes. According to one study, about 7 percent of people test positive for reactions to PPD, including dermatitis on the face and facial swelling, which was my symptom.

The FDA says it's possible to have a reaction even if you have colored your hair in the past without a problem. It recommends doing a patch test on your skin every time before you dye your hair to see if any symptoms develop.

It took a good two days to feel better, and a full eight or nine days for me to feel back to normal. The hair dresser was so apologetic and said it had only happened to him once in the last 10 years.

The lesson learned: anyone, including myself, should do a patch test. Ask lots of questions, don’t rush into it. I don’t think I will ever color my hair again.

Whalen shared her story with A. Pawlowski.

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