Nickel’s Nasty Prickle

in Skin Allergy
Published: July 2, 2010

AA000110How this lowly metal drives millions of North Americans into a frenzy of itching.

SCRATCH, scratch, scratch. It’s a sticky summer evening and I’m absently rubbing some tiny red bumps under the clasp of my watch.

Poison ivy, perhaps? I apply calamine lotion and think no more of it until I notice the same rash on my abdomen, where my jeans button happens to sit. I’d known for 20 years that earrings made my lobes itchy, but why were my watch and jeans suddenly a problem?

The culprit is nickel, the most common metal allergen. It turns out that because I’m sensitized to it in one place, I’m likely to react to it elsewhere on my body.

It’s a chronic condition, so I’m stuck with it for life. But at least I am in good company: nickel allergy affects up to one in seven women. That means I have around two million Canadian sisters suffering along with me. Of course, nickel allergy affects men as well, but in smaller numbers.

A nickel reaction generally shows up as an itchy, red, bumpy rash where something containing the metal, such as a necklace, a watch, a ring or a pair of earrings, sits against the skin.

The incidence of nickel allergy shot up in the 1990s; it used to hover at about 10 per cent of women, but has grown to 14 per cent. That’s because of the popularity of body piercing, the most common cause of the reaction.

When the wrong type of piercing tool is used, corrosion causes the release of nickel ions, which can leach onto the skin. The same goes for studs used while the ear lobes are healing.

For those of us contending with the allergy, earrings, other piercings and rings are obvious triggers. But like my jeans fastener, other nickel encounters are less apparent.

A glasses wearer may not initially make the connection between a line of red bumps and contact with a pair of nickel-laden spectacles, while a woman may wonder what is happening to her as an underwire bra rests against her irritated skin.

Nickel allergy sufferer Kathy Weber of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania recalls her also-allergic 9-year-old daughter’s reaction to a more obscure object. “She brought home her new trumpet – an instrument she’d been excited to play since kindergarten – and played it frequently over the next few days,” Weber says.

Her daughter soon developed itchy, blistering lips. Some quick Internet research uncovered a high nickel content in that particular mouthpiece. Kathy bought a poly-carbonate mouthpiece for her daughter and gave the nickel one to her trumpet-playing husband.

If you’re getting skin eruptions, you may wonder if nickel allergy is the cause. According to Dr. James Bergman, a Vancouver pediatric dermatologist and allergist, if it’s nickel allergy, the rash will typically show up as a well-defined, red area. Sometimes there will be a more general eczema reaction that spreads to other parts of the body, even where there was no direct nickel contact. But that’s not common.

Next: Prevention and avoidance