What is 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 items, including:
- Cell phones
- Eyeglass frames
- Paper clips
- Orthodontic braces
- Stainless steel cooking equipment and eating utensils
- 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 and blistering.
How common is nickel allergy?
Nickel allergy is a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis. The allergy may develop at any age, but it is more common in women than men. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of nickel allergy?
The common symptoms of nickel allergy are:
- Rash or bumps on the skin
- Itching, which may be severe
- Redness or changes in skin color
- Dry patches of skin that may resemble a burn
- Blisters and draining fluid in severe cases
An allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) usually begins within hours to days after exposure to nickel. The reaction may last as long as two to four weeks. The reaction tends to occur only where your skin came into contact with nickel, but sometimes may appear in other places on your body.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
If you have a skin rash and don’t know how you got it, talk to your doctor. If you’ve already been diagnosed with nickel allergy and are sure you’re reacting to nickel exposure, use the over-the-counter treatments and home remedies your doctor has previously recommended.
However, if these treatments don’t help, call your doctor. If you think the area may have become infected, see your doctor right away. Signs and symptoms that might indicate an infection include:
- Increased redness
- Pus in the affected area
What causes nickel allergy?
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.
What increases my risk for nickel allergy?
There are many risk factors for nickel allergy, such as:
- Having ear or body piercings. Because nickel is common in jewelry, nickel allergy is most often associated with earrings and other body-piercing jewelry containing nickel.
- Working with metal. If you work in an occupation that constantly exposes you to nickel, your risk of developing an allergy may be higher than it is for someone who doesn’t work with the metal. In addition, people who have regular exposure to nickel while doing “wet work” — as a result of either sweat or frequent contact with water — may be more likely to develop nickel allergy. These people may include bartenders, people who work in certain food industries and domestic cleaners. Other people who may have an increased risk of nickel allergy include metalworkers, tailors and hairdressers.
- Being female. Females are more likely to have a nickel allergy than are males. This may be because females tend to have more piercings. A recent study found that overweight women seem to have an even higher risk of nickel allergy.
- Having a family history of nickel allergy. You may have inherited a tendency to develop a nickel allergy if other people in your family are sensitive to nickel.
- Being allergic to other metals. People who have a sensitivity to other metals may also be allergic to nickel.
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is 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 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 (Zyrtec)
Make sure to follow your doctor’s instructions carefully when using these medications.
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.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage nickel allergy?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with nickel allergy:
- Use soothing lotions, such as calamine lotion, which may ease itching.
- Moisturize regularly. Your skin has a natural barrier that’s disrupted when it reacts to nickel and other allergens. Using emollient creams or lotions, such as petroleum jelly or mineral oil, could reduce your need for topical corticosteroids.
- Apply wet compresses, which can help dry blisters and relieve itching. Soak a clean cloth in tap water or Burow’s solution, an over-the-counter medication containing aluminum acetate.
- Avoid certain over-the-counter ointments, such as antibiotic creams, which may contain ingredients — particularly neomycin — that can worsen an allergic reaction.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Review Date: November 23, 2017 | Last Modified: December 6, 2019
Nickel allergy. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nickel-allergy/symptoms-causes/syc-20351529. Accessed November 24, 2017.
Nickel Allergy. https://www.healthline.com/health/allergies/nickel#overview1. Accessed November 24, 2017.