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Nickel Allergy: Causes, Cure and Prevention

Nickel allergy is considered to be a form of contact dermatitis, which occurs when the skin makes contact with the substance nickel. It often starts after a person undergoes body piercing and wears jewellery containing nickel. Once a person is sensitized to the nickel, an allergic reaction occurs, causing skin inflammation and forming a skin rash.

Nickel allergy tends to affect women more often than men because they wear more jewellery. However, in recent years as piercings became more popular the rate of nickel allergy among males is increasing.

Sometimes, skin reacts to nickel only under certain conditions. A reaction is most likely when sweaty or wet skin comes into contact with nickel alloys that are not resistant to sweat corrosion. In addition, nickel may seep into the bloodstream from implants such as surgical clamps or coronary stents and prostheses.

Causes and Risk Factors for Nickel Allergy

Usually, repeated exposure to items containing nickel is required to develop a nickel allergy. You should know that most metal products, particularly those that are silver-colored, contain nickel. However, the most frequent source of nickel allergies is jewelry. Although some jewelry is marketed as being hypoallergenic, consumers should be wary of such claims as nickel may still be present in certain parts of jewelry which are not supposed to come in regular contact with the skin. Nickel is a common alloy metal, therefore, it can also be found in 14-karat gold, white gold alloy as well as silver.

Experts disagree on whether patients with nickel allergies should avoid foods containing nickel. Some doctors recommend their patients to abstain from consuming dietary nickel for a period of time to see if this improves symptoms of nickel allergy. Common sources of dietary nickel include canned fruit and canned vegetables, many sorts of fresh fruits, vegetables and grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, coffee, tea, beer, fish, shellfish, soy, cocoa and chocolate. Furthermore, high acid foods, such as tomato sauce, cooked in stainless steel pots may cause nickel from the nickel coating on such pots to seep into the food. This can also trigger an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals.

Certain occupations may present a higher risk of nickel sensitization. These include jobs where a person is in regular contact with nickel, or does a lot of “wet” work, such as cleaning. This is because nickel easily penetrates the skin that is damaged from water exposure. Occupations that present an increased risk of sensitizing a person to nickel include cleaning crews, hairdressers, cashiers, hospital staff, assembly line workers (especially those in the electronics industry), cooks and catering crews. Wearing protective gloves should help ensure that people in these professions do not become sensitized to nickel. In fact, studies show that even intense contact with nickel is unlikely to trigger an allergic reaction when metal contacts skin that is dry and in good condition.

Symptoms of Nickel Allergy

A red, inflamed, itchy skin is usually the first sign of a nickel allergy. Later, tiny water blisters emerge where the contact was made. They ooze and the skin becomes moist and may peel off. If the condition persists over a long period of time, the rash will dry out. The skin then becomes scaly and cracked. Although rashes typically begin at the site of contact, they can appear anywhere on the body. The areas that are most likely to be affected by nickel allergy include wrists, hands, ears and stomach.

Diagnosing Nickel Allergy

In most cases, a doctor can diagnose a nickel allergy by examining the affected area of the skin. A simple skin patch test can be used to confirm the diagnosis. During this procedure, a patch soaked with tiny quantities of nickel is applied to the patient’s skin for at least 48 hours before the doctor checks for a reaction.

Treating Nickel Allergy

Although nickel allergy cannot be cured, some patients find they become less sensitive to nickel over time. Rashes resulting from nickel allergies usually clear on their own if the skin remains free of nickel contact. A mild corticosteroid cream may be prescribed to reduce itchiness and clear up the rash. Moisturizers can be used to help keep the skin from cracking and peeling. Furthermore, patients should watch carefully for any signs of infection like crusting and yellowing of the skin, weeping sores or foul-smelling skin and contact their physician immediately if any such symptoms appear.

Preventing Nickel Allergy

It is not possible to completely avoid nickel because it is found in so many foods and various products of daily use. But, patients can prevent allergy-related symptoms by avoiding direct, prolonged skin contact with products that contain nickel. This is especially true of skin that is cracked, broken or damaged from frequently being wet. Individuals allergic to nickel must constantly watch for its presence and, if they suspect nickel in certain items, they should use dimethylglyoxime spot test kits to check whether they contain this metal.

Where to Get More Information: Nickel Institute