Allergic to jewellery?

Allergies to nickel have become more common in recent years. This, in part, is due to the introduction of cheap 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.

Nickel allergy and jewellery

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

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 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 and hypoallergenic jewellery.

An allergy to nickel can be confirmed either by your doctor or a specialist allergy clinic 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.

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 to help calm the itching.

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: 6 December 2012

Next review: 14 August 2014