A metal allergy is an allergic reaction to metal, usually referenced in the form of jewelry. Although different types of metal can cause allergies, most people who experience allergies react to nickel. These allergies are more common in women, with an estimated 12% being allergic to nickel, compared with only 6% of men.
An allergic reaction to nickel can be a highly irritating and even painful experience. Typically, the skin breaks out in a rash, known as eczema, where it has come into contact with nickel. The affected skin turns red, becomes itchy, and usually breaks out into painful fluid-filled blisters. This type of eczema is known as pompholyx.
In the case of pierced ears, symptoms of a nickel allergy usually include the earlobe swelling around the piercing, turning red, and itching. The hole usually also weeps a clear, yellowish fluid, a sign of infection. Although piercings can sometimes become infected due to other causes, persistent symptoms and infections that seem to occur after wearing certain earrings may indicate an allergic reaction.
The reason so many people are susceptible to nickel allergies is because nickel tends to dissolve in moisture, forming salts. For instance, when a person bathes, washes her hands, or sweats while wearing jewelry that contains nickel, the salts form and the skin becomes irritated. Nickel is a strong irritant, and repeated or continued contact with it can weaken the body’s natural resistance.
For people with a metal allergy, it is possible to still wear jewelry, but a little extra care must be given. Inexpensive jewelry almost always contains nickel, and must be avoided. Even jewelry that is marketed as gold or silver may contain nickel, as this metal is often added to those metals to harden them. Even seemingly harmless items, such as the metal buttons on jeans, a buckle on a watch, and even a metal-coated keypad on a cell phone, can irritate the skin wherever they come into contact with it.
There is no allergy medication that can cure a metal allergy, but precautions can be taken to minimize or prevent the discomfort. Any time the wearer notices a rash developing, the cause must be removed as soon as possible. Topical steroids can be an effective allergy treatment, but must be prescribed by a medical professional. Emollient creams offer another form of treatment, but all they can do is to relieve the itching of the rash, not prevent it. Plastic covers can be purchased for inexpensive earring studs, but the common approach of painting earring studs or necklace chains with clear nail polish is not advised, as sweat and moisture will quickly dissolve it.
Living with this type of allergy can be difficult at times, because it requires the person to anticipate whenever metal might come into contact with her skin long enough to cause an allergic reaction. With a little foresight and planning, however, it is possible for someone with a metal allergy to avoid discomfort and still lead a normal life.