Nickel Allergy

A nickel allergy is your body’s immune response to nickel, a chemical element with a broad range of industrial and consumer applications. The exact cause of nickel allergies is unknown, though there may be a genetic factor involved. Allergic reactions occur when sweat leaches nickel from an object in contact with the body. The nickel permeates the skin, leading to an adverse reaction, similar to that for an invading pathogen. Many of the allergy’s symptoms are dermatological. Nickel allergies are most frequent among women, especially younger women, who wear jewelry, including earrings, made of nickel or nickel alloys. 

Nickel allergies are a common form of illness. It is estimated that ten percent or more of all Americans may suffer from this type of allergy. Nickel allergies range in severity from relatively mild, to a systemic form that is potentially debilitating. If you or a loved one are dealing with a possible nickel allergy, see your Baptist Health physician for consultation and treatment.

What Are Nickel Allergy Symptoms?

The symptoms of a nickel allergy include:

  • Rashes or bumpy skin
  • Blisters
  • Itching
  • Flushed skin (redness)
  • Patches that look like burns

Symptoms typically develop where nickel contacted the skin. There may be a delay of as much as 72 hours from the time of contact to the appearance of symptoms (what’s known as allergic contact dermatitis). A more severe reaction, called contact urticaria, can result in hives – elevated patches of red skin. In rare cases, a nickel allergy can also lead to asthma-like respiratory symptoms.

In addition to women, at-risk groups include persons with ear or body piercings, metal workers, individuals with other metal allergies, and members of families with a history of nickel allergies.

How Is a Nickel Allergy Diagnosed?

Diagnosing a nickel allergy is a multi-step process. Your physician or allergist will start by giving a you a physical exam, asking questions about your symptoms, and recording your medical history. He or she may then test for a nickel allergy using a skin prick test. In this kind of test, a small amount of an allergen is placed on your skin. If your skin responds by developing redness, itchiness, or a hive-like swelling called a wheal, then you may be sensitive to the allergen. False positives are possible, so additional analysis is often required.

Allergy tests frequently involve a large number of potential allergens. This is the most feasible way of determining which allergen, or group of allergens, your immune system reacts to.

How Is a Nickel Allergy Treated?

There is no cure for a nickel allergy. Treatment focuses instead on suppressing or controlling symptoms. Major forms of treatment are:

  • Topical medications: Corticosteroid and nonsteroidal creams can be applied directly to inflamed patches of skin.
  • Oral medications: Oral corticosteroids are often prescribed for more serious outbreaks. Oral antihistamines can help control itching, though sometimes less effectively for skin than for nasal passages.
  • Phototherapy: Phototherapy is the medical treatment of skin by regular exposure to ultraviolet light. It is typically used only when topical and oral medications have failed to reduce symptoms and often requires repeated treatments over long periods of time to be effective.

How Do I Prevent a Nickel Allergy?

Nickel avoidance is the best means of preventing an adverse reaction. Here are some steps you can take to lessen your risk:

  • Wear nickel-free jewelry
  • Choose household items that don’t contain nickel
  • Buy clothing with zippers and other fasteners made of plastics or plastic-coated metals
  • Avoid foods with trace amounts of nickel, including oatmeal, chocolate, nuts, and legumes (pod plants) such as peas, soybeans, and peanuts.
  • Wrap cell phones and computers in protective covers
  • Wash any part of your body that comes into contact with nickel
  • Purchase a kit for testing the presence of nickel in objects that you use

There is no long-term fix for a nickel allergy. It is possible, however, to control nickel allergies, with a combination of symptom treatment and prevention.

Learn More About Nickel Allergies from Baptist Health

Nickel is among the most common of all allergens. If you develop the symptoms of a nickel allergy, take the first step by seeing a Baptist Health provider.

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