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How to Tell If It’s a Nickel Allergy That’s Making Your Skin Itchy and Red

Have you ever worn a pair of earrings and noticed that your ears got itchy? Or taken off a ring and found your skin had turned red underneath it? Or maybe discovered that a button or zipper rubbed against your skin and left a rash?

Signs like these could point to a nickel allergy or sensitivity to nickel. It’s one of the most common causes of allergic skin irritation — the American Academy of Dermatology says it affects more than 18% of people.  

We spoke with Jason Leubner, MD, a family medicine specialist at Banner – University Medicine Family Medicine Clinic in Phoenix, AZ, to help answered our questions about nickel allergies.

What is a nickel allergy?

A nickel allergy is an allergic reaction that develops in your skin after your skin comes in contact with nickel. It’s easy for your skin to contact nickel since it’s sometimes used in:

  • Jewelry
  • Piercings
  • Buttons
  • Zippers
  • Snaps
  • Bra closures
  • Belt buckles
  • Watchbands
  • Keys
  • Eye glass frames
  • Electronics

You might be exposed to nickel many times before you develop an allergy. “People are sometimes surprised that they develop a nickel allergy after they’ve been wearing jewelry or clothing that contains nickel for quite some time,” Dr. Leubner said. “But just because you’ve been exposed to nickel a lot doesn’t mean you can’t develop an allergy to it. In fact, you almost always need to be exposed multiple times before your skin gets sensitized and reacts to it. It’s rare for people to react to nickel with just one exposure.” Aging and medical conditions can also make you more prone to a nickel allergy.

What are the symptoms of a nickel allergy?

People with a sensitivity to nickel will often notice:

  • Itching
  • Red skin
  • Pain or stinging
  • Swelling
  • Scaly plaque

In more severe cases, you could experience:

  • Blisters
  • More extensive swelling
  • Dry, scaly, thick, cracked skin

Usually, the skin reaction clears up once you remove the nickel. Occasionally, though, it can become a long-standing problem.

How is it diagnosed?

A health care professional can diagnose a nickel allergy by taking your medical history and conducting a physical exam. “Combining the location and appearance of the rash with a history of substances that came in contact with the skin can often identify the culprit,” Dr. Leubner said. In some cases, you may need a form of skin testing called patch testing to help identify what’s causing the allergic skin reaction.

How can you treat a nickel allergy?

Most of the time, once you identify a nickel allergy, you can avoid contact with things that contain nickel and eliminate the possibility of an allergic reaction. If you need to wear or use something that contains nickel, you can paint it with clear nail polish for protection, but you’ll need to reapply the polish frequently. You can also create a barrier between your skin and things that contain nickel with gloves, long sleeves or other skin coverings.

If the allergic reaction is irritating your skin, you can apply a hypoallergenic lotion to calm itching and soothe discomfort.

In the future, to reduce the risk of coming in contact with nickel, choose jewelry that’s nickel-free or hypoallergenic, or made from stainless steel, sterling silver, platinum or yellow gold. It’s important to note that some 18K white gold contains nickel while some does not.

When should you seek medical care?

Most of the time, avoiding nickel and applying lotion is all you need to treat a nickel allergy. If you have a severe rash, intense itching or blistering, or if your rash doesn’t go away after you’ve removed the object that contains nickel, see your primary care provider. Your provider can evaluate whether you have a nickel allergy or something else that’s causing your rash. And they can consider whether you need a steroid cream or other treatment.

The bottom line

Nickel allergies are common, and nickel is used in jewelry and a lot of products that come in contact with your skin. It could take many exposures to nickel before you develop skin irritation or a rash. If you’re allergic to nickel, your best option is to avoid wearing things that contain nickel or to put a barrier between your skin and the nickel. If you would like to talk to a health care professional about how to best care for your skin, connect with Banner Health.

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