What is nickel allergy?

What is nickel allergy?

May 16th 2018

What is nickel allergy?

Quite simply, nickel allergy is a very common form of contact dermatitis. In fact, it is the most common form of contact dermatitis. Symptoms can include:

  • a rash or bumps on the skin
  • itching, sometimes severe
  • redness
  • change in skin color
  • dryness of the skin
  • blisters and a fluid discharge in the worst cases

It is our immune system that triggers a reaction to nickel. The immune system is responsible for creating chemical responses that help fight off dangerous invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. With nickel allergy, indeed any allergy, our body has misidentified a harmless substance as a dangerous one. Typically, with nickel, an adverse reaction does not happen after the first exposure, rather after multiple exposures or over time.

The reaction is generally found at the point of contact between an item containing nickel and the affected person. However, in more advanced cases, the symptoms can migrate. While nickel allergy is most often associated with earrings and jewelry, it can also be triggered but many everyday items, including eye glass frames, belt buckles, zippers, coins, even cell phones.

Only 3-4% of the population is born with a nickel sensitivity. By the time adulthood is reached, more than 20% of the population has been sensitized and shows some degree of nickel allergy symptoms. That is a rather remarkable increase and the general consensus is that ear piercing is the most common way nickel sensitivity is started. During the early stages of a healing ear piercing wound, nickel ions easily pass over into the bloodstream from the ear piercing stud or initial earring. It is this sudden and extreme exposure to nickel ions that causes a nickel sensitivity. Unfortunately, once a nickel sensitivity is acquired, you are stuck with it. It never goes away or dissipates. The only real solution is nickel avoidance. 

Nickel allergy can be properly identified by an allergist using a patch test. During a patch test a small amount of nickel is applied to a small patch of skin. The physician then monitors that site for 48 hours watching for a reaction and symptoms.

People with severe nickel allergy should be aware that a surprising amount of foods can contain nickel. These foods include:

  • black tea
  • soy and chocolate milk
  • nuts
  • many grains, including oats, buckwheat, wheat germ, whole wheat, whole wheat pasta
  • some vegetables, including beans, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, and cauliflower
  • all canned fruits
  • bananas and pears

Since there is no cure for nickel allergy and it tends to get worse over time, nickel avoidance is the only real strategy for those suffering from this condition. Earrings are by far the most common item that causes a nickel reaction so wearing the safest possible earring is essential.

It is generally recognized that most people are sensitized the first time they have their ears pierced. Piercing with ultra safe ear piercing studs can actually eliminate the chance of being sensitized during an ear piercing completely. We will get into the science of that in a future blog.