Nickel allergy is a problem for an estimated 20 percent of the population. Individuals with an allergy to nickel typically experience rash and itching whenever an item containing nickel touches their skin.
Nickel is a hard, silvery metallic element used primarily in the manufacturing of stainless steels, but it also has a variety of other manufacturing applications. As the fifth most common element on earth, its high melting point and resistance to corrosion and oxidation make it ideal for use in pots and pans, sinks, medical equipment and more.
Nickel is also used in consumer items that come into direct and prolonged contact with the skin. Jewelry items, watches and eyeglasses may contain nickel, as well as mobile and handheld devices like iPads.
This widespread use of nickel means dermatologists are seeing more and more patients with allergic nickel reactions. Nickel reactions are not life threatening, but can be bothersome. Symptoms typically appear within 48 hours after exposure and include itching, redness, dry patches and rash. Localized swelling and blisters can occur with more severe reactions.
If you develop a rash and are unsure of the cause, see your dermatologist. Those with a known nickel allergy may be able to treat the rash at home with the use of an over-the-counter preparations such as corticosteroid cream or oral antihistamines. A dermatologist should evaluate blistering or severe rashes, since prescription oral corticosteroids or antibiotics may be needed, if infection is present.
To minimize exposure to nickel, follow these steps:
- Cover metal hooks, buckles, buttons and snaps on clothing or swap them for plastic
- Avoid jewelry that contains nickel. Opt for products labeled nickel-free, hypoallergenic or that are non-metal. If you do wear metal, look for products made from surgical-grade stainless steel, 18-karat or higher pure gold, sterling silver or platinum
- Use protective covers on all electronics
- Avoid foods high in nickel including cashews, soybeans, cocoa and figs
- Read labels and choose nickel-free household products
Once you develop an allergy to nickel, it will not go away. Many common items contain nickel. Nickel testing kits are available and allow you to test jewelry and other items for the presence of nickel.