The INSIDER Summary:
• I was recently diagnosed with an allergy to nickel.
• It seems innocuous, but the metal is so common, it’s nearly impossible to avoid.
• Nickel allergies are becoming more and more prevalent US.
Every time I approach an unfamiliar metal object, I feel a tiny jolt of unease.
That’s because I am one of millions of Americans who are allergic to nickel, a metal that’s ubiquitous in jewellery, consumer products, the very earth on which we’re standing, and, in my personal experience, a hell of a lot of things I’m used to touching.
Many people discover that they’re allergic to nickel via jewellery. They wear a cheap necklace and later break out in a rash (technically known as allergic contact dermatitis) where it touched them. But I don’t wear jewellery. Instead, I woke up one day this summer with a burning, itchy rash on my eyelids, left cheek, and all around my lips.
I made an appointment with an allergist when it didn’t go away after a week. Then I got a test that exposed my skin to 90 common allergens to see which ones provoked a reaction. The only positive result? Nickel.
But I didn’t recall diving face first into a bowl full of spare change — so why was the rash on my face?
That’s because nickel can travel, in a way. The American Academy of Dermatology explains that rashes on the eyelids can happen when allergic patients repeatedly touch nickel-containing objects, then rub the sensitive skin around their eyes. Tiny amounts of the metal can actually move from objects to fingers to skin elsewhere on the body, where it can cause a reaction.
Sounds crazy — but that’s just one of the many manifestations of nickel allergies.
Because the severity of the allergy can vary from person to person, the severity of reactions varies from person to person, too, according to Mona Gohara, MD, aassociate clinical professor at the Yale University department of dermatology, told INSIDER.
“It really depends on how sensitive you are,” she told INSIDER. “It depends on how rampant your immune response is.”
For some people it takes extended contact with the metal before getting a rash, while others react even to brief contact. Some people just get localised rashes — say, right where their jeans button hits their stomach — but for others, a small point of contact can cause a rash all over the body, Gohara said.
Nickel also factors into surgery, since it’s often used in implants like joint replacements.
“If those implants have nickel in them, it increases the chance that the surgery won’t be successful or that they would have an overlying rash,” allergist Sherry Farzan, MD, assistant professor at Hofstra University’s Northwell School of Medicine, told INSIDER.
In my case, my allergist suspected I was transferring nickel from my fingers to my face. It didn’t take long to find out how.
It turned out I was touching a lot of things that contained nickel.
I discovered this thanks to a nifty liquid solution called Nickel Alert. You place a few drops on a cotton swab, rub the object in question, and wait: If the swab turns pink, that object contains some amount of nickel. Using the solution I found nickel in my apartment deadbolt, pens, makeup brushes, boot zippers, kitchen utensils, keys, eyeglasses, and several door handles at my office. Most importantly, I found it in my work keyboard, upon which I was dutifully typing for 8 or 9 hours every weekday.
Many of these predicaments had easy solutions: I got a plastic keyboard and nickel-free glasses and did my best to cover nickel objects around my home with an attractive layer of tape.
Outside my home environment, avoiding nickel can be tricky. Every zipper or button on clothes must be covertly tested in the dressing room before purchase. Every new set of restaurant silverware might revive that rash around my mouth. Every trip to the laundromat (handling handfuls of quarters, touching the metal machines) requires a few rounds of hand-washing to make sure there are no traces of nickel left on my hands to transfer back to my face.
I try my best to steer clear of unfamiliar doorknobs, too, even though it’s not exactly necessary (Farzan said that brief, single touches aren’t really a big deal when it comes to transferring nickel to the hands.) As a result I’ve gotten quite good at opening doors with my hips/elbows/some combination thereof.
Yeah, maybe the doorknob avoidance is overkill. But it’s a whole lot better than the rash that was so itchy I couldn’t focus at work. I’d rather play it extra safe.
Nickel allergies are on the rise.
Currently, I’m one of two people I know with a nickel allergy, but that could change. Farzan said that they’re becoming more and more common.
“The reason why it’s happening, it’s thought, is that children, specifically young girls, are getting their ears pierced at a much younger age,” she said. “The number of people doing that is increasing. Especially when they’re not using high-grade surgical steel or they’re using the cheaper type of earrings, that exposes them to nickel. And their immune system reacts and develops sensitivity.”
Gohara added that consumer technology might share some blame: There’s nickel in cell phones and even wearable
fitness trackers. “Now there’s so much technology out there, there’s things we’re constantly attached to,” she said. “It’s more exposure.”
That’s how nickel allergy works, actually: Repeated or prolonged exposure to the metal can kickstart the allergy, the CDC explains. This is why people with lots of piercings and people who work with nickel are at a higher risk of becoming allergic. (Having relatives with nickel allergy may increase your odds of inheriting it, too.) And once you have it, you’re stuck with it for life.
Some governments have tried to rein in nickel use. Back in 1994, the European Union set up laws to limit the amount of nickel in jewellery and other consumer items. The idea was that reducing exposure would also reduce allergies, and least one study
found that it’s working: Nickel allergies have decreased significantly in Danish, German, and Italian women under 30.
But here in the US, despite calls for action from doctors, there’s no such regulation. Maybe someday there will be a push to reduce the amount of nickel in our products.
Until then, I’ll be the girl swabbing dress zippers at the department store, hoping nobody’s judging me too harshly.
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