Allergies to nickel have become more common in recent years. This, in part, is due to the introduction of more affordable fancy jewellery where the underlying metal layer tends to consist of nickel. Until recently an allergy to nickel has been more common in women than in men. This is due to the fact that they have been more likely to pierce their ears and body. However, this is changing. You are also more likely to be at risk if there is a family history of nickel allergy, if you have an allergy to other metals or you work with metal.
An allergy to nickel can occur at any age and develops after repeated or prolonged exposure to items containing nickel. Once you have an allergy it is likely to stay with you for the rest of your life. The allergic reaction (contact dermatitis or eczema) will usually begin within 12 to 48 hours after exposure to the metal and the reaction may last for as long as two to four weeks. The main symptoms are:
- Chronic itch
- Red rash or raised bumps
- Redness or changes in skin colour
- Dry patches of skin that may look like a burn
- Blisters and draining fluid in severe cases
The areas that are most susceptible are generally the earlobes (from earrings), the wrists (from a watch strap) and the lower abdomen (from trouser studs). Sweating at the point of contact with nickel may also worsen the symptoms.
Nickel is now found in many items including earrings, other jewellery for body piercing, necklace clasps, watch straps, coins, eyeglass frames, clothing fasteners (e.g. zippers, bra hooks), belt buckles, paper clips, pens, keys, mobile phones, chalk, medical devices, laptops and computer tablets, e-cigarettes, military style “dog-tag” ID, orthodontic braces, stainless steel cooking equipment and eating utensils and tools. If you have a nickel allergy you should avoid prolonged exposure to items containing nickel. There are now many alternatives available including leather watch straps, zippers or clothing fasteners made of plastic or coated materials, plastic or titanium eyeglass frames and hypoallergenic jewellery.
Nickel is also present in a surprisingly substantial number of goods and food products, including:
- Black tea
- Nuts and seeds
- Soy milk and chocolate milk
- Chocolate and cocoa powders
- Grains such as oats, wheat germ and whole wheat pasta
- Vegetables such as asparagus, beans, broccoli, brussel sprouts, spinach, cauliflower and all tinned vegetables
- Certain legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, peas, peanuts and tofu
- Certain fruits including bananas, pears and all tinned fruits.
If you must be exposed to nickel at work, creating a barrier between you and the nickel may help. If your hands must touch nickel, wearing gloves may help. Try covering buttons, snaps, zippers or tool handles with duct tape or with a clear barrier such as clear nail polish on jewellery.
An allergy to nickel can be confirmed either by your doctor or an allergist who can perform a patch test. A patch will be placed on your back that will contain small quantities of potential allergens (including nickel). This will remain on your skin for 2 days before being removed. If you have a nickel allergy, the skin under the patch will be inflamed when the patch is removed or in the days after removal of the patch.
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 changes in the skin, such as redness and blistering.
If you do have an allergy to nickel, depending on the severity, you may be prescribed corticosteroid creams, oral corticosteroids or oral antihistamines. In many instances you can use over the counter antihistamines and soothing lotions such as calamine-based products to help calm the itching.
However, if these treatments don’t help, speak to 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
It is important to tell your dentist if you have a nickel allergy, some fillings can be mixed with metal compounds so always check with your dentist that a filling or cap they plan to fit doesn’t contain any nickel.
Sources used in writing this article are available on request
Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence-based articles are certified by the Information Standard and our sources are available on request. The content is not, though, written by medical professionals and should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands, or treatments.
Information written by the talkhealth team
Last revised: 18 March 2018
Next review: 18 March 2021