What Is a Nickel Allergy?
Nickel is a silver-colored metal found naturally in the
environment. It is often mixed with other metals and used to make various
- cell phones
- eyeglass frames
- paper clips
- orthodontic braces
- stainless steel cooking equipment and eating
- clothing fasteners, such as zippers, snap
buttons, and belt buckles
Small amounts of nickel are also found in many foods, including certain
grains, fruits, and vegetables.
A nickel allergy is an adverse immune response that occurs when
someone comes into contact with a product containing nickel. Normally, the
immune system defends the body against harmful substances, such as viruses and
bacteria, to ward off illnesses. In people with nickel allergies, the immune
system mistakes nickel as a dangerous intruder. The immune system begins to
produce chemicals to fight against the substance, triggering an allergic
reaction. An allergic reaction to nickel is one of the most common causes of an
itchy skin rash. It can also cause other changes in the skin, such as redness
Nickel allergies are increasing in the United States. The allergy
may develop at any age, but it is more common in women than men. About 16
percent of men and 36
percent of women under the age of 18 have a nickel allergy in the United
States. Once it has developed, a nickel allergy is unlikely to go away. The only
way to treat a nickel allergy is to avoid all items and foods containing
What Are the Symptoms of a Nickel Allergy?
People with a nickel allergy usually begin to develop a skin
reaction within 12 to 48 hours after coming into contact with an item
containing nickel. The symptoms of a nickel allergy include:
- skin rash or bumps
- redness or other changes in skin color
- dry patches on the skin that resemble a burn
- blisters (in very severe cases)
Nickel is also one of the main causes of a skin rash known as
allergic contact dermatitis. Someone with a nickel allergy will almost always have
a localized response following exposure to objects containing nickel. This
means that the allergic reaction only affects the part of the skin that comes
into contact with nickel.
Eating foods containing small amounts of nickel may also trigger
an immune response that causes changes in the skin.
Allergic contact dermatitis
causes the following symptoms:
- severe itching
- scaly, raw, or thickened skin
- dry, discolored, or rough skin
- warm, tender skin
- fluid-filled blisters
The rash usually lasts between two and four weeks after exposure.
In rare cases, a nickel allergy can also lead to respiratory
- runny nose
- nasal inflammation
People with this type of reaction should take preventive measures
What Causes an Allergic Reaction to Nickel?
The immune system is responsible for promoting chemical changes
in the body that help fight off harmful invaders, such as viruses and bacteria.
In people with allergies, the immune system mistakes a typically harmless
substance as an intruder. The immune system begins to produce chemicals to ward
off the substance. In people with a nickel allergy, the immune system is
reacting to the object or food containing nickel. The reaction leads to various
symptoms, including rashes and itching.
This adverse reaction may occur after the first exposure to
nickel or after repeated and prolonged exposure. The exact cause of a nickel
allergy isn’t known. However, researchers believe that the sensitivity to
nickel may be genetic, or inherited from a relative.
How Is a Nickel Allergy Diagnosed?
Your doctor or dermatologist can diagnose a nickel allergy. Call
them right away if you have a skin rash and don’t know what caused it. Your doctor
will first ask you about your symptoms, including when they started and what
appears to make them worse. Be sure to tell your doctor about any medications, supplements,
or new foods and products you’ve tried recently.
A patch test is often performed if a nickel allergy is suspected.
During the patch test, your doctor will apply a small amount of nickel over a
patch. The patch will then be placed on your skin. Patch tests are usually very
safe and shouldn’t cause a major allergic reaction. They will only cause a
minor response in people who are allergic to nickel.
Your doctor will observe your skin for about 48 hours after the
patch test and check for signs of an allergic reaction. If the skin looks
irritated, then you may be allergic to nickel. In some cases, the results
aren’t clear and further testing is needed.
How Is a Nickel Allergy Treated?
There’s no cure for a nickel allergy. As with other allergies,
the best treatment is to avoid the allergen.
Your doctor may prescribe one of the following medications to
help reduce the skin irritation caused by a nickel allergy:
- corticosteroid cream
- nonsteroidal cream
- oral corticosteroid, such as prednisone
- oral antihistamine, such as fexofenadine
(Allegra) or cetirizine
Make sure to follow your doctor’s instructions carefully when using
The following home treatments might also help:
- calamine lotion
- moisturizing body lotion
- wet compresses
Tell your doctor if treatments aren’t helping or if they’re
making symptoms worse. You should also contact your doctor immediately if you
experience increased redness, pain, or pus in the affected area. These symptoms
may be a sign of infection and will need to be treated with antibiotics.
How Can an Allergic Reaction to Nickel Be Prevented?
While the allergy itself can’t be prevented, the best way to
prevent an allergic reaction to nickel is to avoid all objects containing it. Always
check with the manufacturer, retailer, or label to find out if an item has
nickel before you buy or use it.
Nickel is also present in a surprisingly large number of foods
and food products, including:
- black tea
- nuts and seeds
- soy milk and chocolate milk
- chocolate and cocoa powders
- certain canned and processed foods, including
meat and fish (check labels)
- certain grains, including:
- whole wheat
- wheat germ
- whole wheat pasta
- multigrain breads and cereals
- certain vegetables, including:
- Brussels sprouts
- all canned vegetables
- certain legumes, including:
- soy products, such as tofu
- certain fruits, including:
- all canned fruits
Talk to your doctor about avoiding these foods if you’re allergic
to nickel. People with a nickel allergy should also:
- abstain from using stainless steel cooking equipment
- avoid wearing jewelry containing nickel or
getting a body piercing
- wear clothing with plastic or coated zippers and
- check with an orthodontist about nickel before
getting orthodontic braces
- ask an ophthalmologist if eyeglasses contain
nickel before buying them
- tell doctors about a nickel allergy before
having any surgeries
If you have a nickel allergy and work in an industry where you
are frequently exposed to nickel, talk to your employer and your doctor. They
can help you determine a plan moving forward for avoiding nickel and preventing
an allergic reaction.