Nickel allergy is one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis — an itchy rash that appears when your skin touches a usually harmless substance.
Nickel allergy is commonly associated with earrings and other jewelry, particularly jewelry associated with body piercings. But nickel can be found in many everyday items — from coins to zippers, from cellphones to eyeglass frames.
Nickel allergy can affect people of all ages. A nickel allergy usually develops after repeated or prolonged exposure to items containing nickel. Treatments can reduce the symptoms of nickel allergy. Once you develop nickel allergy, however, you will always be sensitive to the metal and need to avoid contact.
If you have nickel allergy and you're exposed to a nickel-containing item, the allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) usually begins within 12 to 48 hours after exposure. The reaction may persist for as long as two to four weeks. The features of contact dermatitis usually appear only where your skin came into contact with nickel, but they may appear elsewhere on your body. Nickel allergy signs and symptoms include:
When to see a doctor
An allergic reaction is somewhat like a case of mistaken identity within your body's immune system. Normally, your immune system reacts to protect your body against bacteria, viruses or toxic substances.
If you have nickel allergy, your body reacts to nickel and possibly to other metals, such as cobalt and palladium. In other words, it's mistakenly identified nickel as something that could harm you. Once your body has developed a reaction to a particular agent (allergen) — in this case, nickel — your immune system will always be sensitive to it. That means anytime you come into contact with nickel, your immune system will respond and produce an allergic response.
Your immune system's sensitivity to nickel may develop after your first exposure or after repeated or prolonged exposure. The cause of nickel allergy is unknown, but sensitivity to nickel may, in part, be inherited (genetic).
Sources of nickel exposure
Nickel allergy is a condition in which contact with items containing nickel causes an itchy rash and possibly blisters at the site of contact. The top photo shows a positive patch test (on the left), ...
Certain factors may increase your risk of developing a nickel allergy, including:
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to see your family doctor first if you're experiencing an itchy rash that may be related to nickel allergy. Preparing for your appointment can help you make the most of your time with your doctor.
What you can do
Questions that you might want to ask your doctor include:
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor can usually diagnose nickel allergy based on your:
If the cause of your rash isn't apparent, however, your doctor may recommend a patch test (contact hypersensitivity allergy test). He or she may refer you to an allergy specialist (allergist) or a skin specialist (dermatologist) for this test.
Because of the low concentrations of allergens used, patch tests are safe even for people with severe allergies.
Treatments and drugs
There is no cure for nickel allergy. Once you develop a sensitivity to nickel, you will develop a rash (contact dermatitis) whenever you come into contact with the metal. Once a particular site, such as an earlobe, has reacted to nickel, that site will react even more when re-exposed to nickel.
Lifestyle and home remedies
You may use some of the following treatments at home to treat contact dermatitis due to nickel allergy. If these treatments don't help or the rash worsens, contact your doctor. Home remedies include the following:
Avoid certain over-the-counter ointments, such as antibiotic creams, which may contain ingredients — particularly neomycin — that can worsen an allergic reaction.
The best strategy to prevent developing nickel allergy is to avoid prolonged exposure to items containing nickel, especially jewelry. If you already have a nickel allergy, the best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid contact with the metal.
However, it's not always easy to avoid nickel because it's present in so many products. Home test kits are available to check for nickel in metal items. The following tips may help you avoid nickel exposure:
Wear hypoallergenic jewelry
Get rid of jewelry that contains nickel or has caused an allergic reaction. Be sure that your earring backings also are made of hypoallergenic materials.
Choose a piercing studio carefully
Visit a studio before getting a piercing to make sure that the piercer:
Use substitute materials
Create a barrier
Last Updated: 2013-03-13
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