What is nickel allergy?

Nickel is a common metal that is found in many metallic items, either electroplated or as an alloy and is used to make many things, including:

  • Costume jewelry (especially earrings, silver and white gold)
  • Eyeglasses
  • Apparel (clothing fasteners like snaps, zippers, and buttons)
  • Coins
  • Keys
  • Metal tools
  • Utensils
  • Instruments
  • Bathroom fixtures
  • Furniture parts
  • Batteries
  • Machinery parts
  • Nickel plating for metal alloys
  • Mobile phones

Nickel is one of the most common causes of an allergy that causes itchy and inflamed red skin and rashes. This kind of allergy is called an “allergic contact dermatitis,” sometimes called “eczema.”

Allergic contact dermatitis (a form of delayed allergy) occurs when skin that has become sensitive (allergic) to a substance, comes into contact with that substance. Symptoms may take as long as 72 hours or more after exposure to appear, usually at the site of nickel contact. There are also rare cases of immediate allergy to nickel appearing as a contact urticaria or hive-like reaction at the site of contact with the nickel-containing item.

There is another type of contact dermatitis called irritant contact dermatitis, which happens when skin is repeatedly exposed to a mild irritant, such as from detergents or frequent wet work. Symptoms of this type of cumulative irritant contact dermatitis are usually gradual in onset or can be immediate with severe exposures. Irritant contact dermatitis may predispose an individual to develop allergic contact dermatitis, for instance, to nickel.

Nickel allergy is something that some of us acquire after we are born. It is a common allergy that affects millions (about 10 percent or more) of the population in the U.S., where the most common underlying event is ear piercing. It is much more common in women than men. This may be because women are more likely to wear jewelry or have piercings.

What usually causes the nickel allergy rash to appear?

Sweat leaches nickel from many types of metal, especially stainless steel. This “free” nickel is then absorbed by the skin where it causes a rash. Tissue fluids are even more likely to dissolve nickel in jewelry, so the open wound from ear piercing is often a cause.

What are the symptoms of nickel allergy?

The symptoms of nickel allergy can be mild, or severe enough to be disabling. They include red skin, itching or burning sensations, blisters, cracked skin and, in severe cases, swelling and spread beyond the site(s) of initial contacts. A severe form of nickel allergy called systemic nickel allergy syndrome can also cause headaches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

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