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Useful facts on nickel allergy (nikkelallergi)

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What is nickel?

Nickel is a metallic element, which in its pure form is silvery and is used in nickel-plating and numerous alloys. It is one of the most common metals with which we surround ourselves.

What is nickel allergy?

Nickel allergy is a form of contact allergy, which means that eczema may develop as a result of direct skin contact with materials containing nickel.

Who gets nickel allergy?

Nickel allergy affects large numbers of people of both genders, in particular as a result of piercing of the ears and other body parts, and use of base metal in direct contact with the skin. Nickel may subsequently enter the skin/bloodstream and cause sensitization. This means that we have become allergic to the substance and every time the skin comes into contact with nickel, eczema may develop after a few hours. The number of men suffering from nickel allergy is on the rise. This is due primarily to the fact that an increasing number of men have begun wearing earrings and necklaces. Nickel allergy may also lead to development of eczema of the hands due to the direct handling of nickel-containing materials such as handles, taps (not stainless steel), coins, etc.

What products contain nickel?

Nickel is particularly prevalent in cheap jewellery, in metal-coated items such as kitchen utensils, shiny handles, zips, fastenings, brooches, knitting needles, scissors, spectacle frames, buttons, coins, etc. Nickel can be found in white gold, platinum and imported jewellery in gold and silver-plate. The metal may also be present in bleaching agents, hair colouring and certain foodstuffs. Foodstuffs with a high nickel-content are dark chocolate, peas, lentils, walnuts, sunflower seeds, etc. Such foodstuffs may exacerbate eczema in individuals with severe nickel allergy, but occur only very rarely. Most sink taps and basins are made from stainless steel - which does not release nickel.

What are the symptoms of nickel allergy?

When an individual first develops allergy to nickel an allergic reaction may occur anywhere on the body if the individual comes into contact with the substance.

Contact eczema which has just arisen, or flared up again, causes red and swollen skin with small and large blisters and oozing sores. In chronic contact eczema the skin is more dry and cracked. Severe itching is common.

How is the diagnosis of nickel allergy made?

Diagnosis of nickel allergy can be made by obtaining a referral to a dermatologist and requesting a so-called “patch test”. A patch test consists of a plaster containing the most allergy-provoking substances being applied to the patient’s back. The plaster is left in situ for two days and then removed. One or two days afterwards the dermatologist interprets the results. If nickel allergy is present you will see a coin-sized red eczema rash where nickel has been tested.

Prevalence of nickel allergy:

We estimate that approximately 10 % of the Norwegian populations suffer from nickel allergy. Where such an allergy develops for the first time then the course is chronic, but the degree of allergy can vary.

Measures/good advice for avoiding nickel allergy:

  • Gold-plate or titanium does not contain nickel. Also silver does not normally contain nickel.
  • Nickel is transferred with more difficulty through dry and unbroken skin; therefore one should always endeavour to keep the hands and skin dry and soft.
  • If you insist on wearing jewellery/rings/watches/belt buckles containing nickel, the metal should be lacquered with several layers of clear nail lacquer in order to avoid skin contact with the metal.
  • Request a guarantee that the jewellery is nickel-free on purchase.

Treatment of nickel allergy:

Avoid substances that cause a reaction. If contact with nickel is unavoidable, other treatment will be relatively ineffective. Use regular skin moistener. The skin will often be dry. Use of cortisone cream may be required on occasions. Moisturising cream should be applied some minutes after application of cortisone preparations. If one continues to use items containing nickel to which one is allergic, the allergy may spread to other skin areas not in contact with nickel.