Is Nickel to Blame for That Itchy Rash?

Last updated: April 2023

Allergic contact dermatitis is an itchy rash that forms after your skin touches a harmless substance. One common trigger of contact dermatitis can be nickel.1,2

What is a nickel allergy?

An allergy happens when the body overreacts to a common substance. In a nickel allergy, touching nickel can trigger contact dermatitis. You may not experience a reaction the first time you touch nickel. Sometimes it takes repeated contact before an allergy develops.1,3

The most common trigger for a nickel allergy is a piercing that includes nickel. Other products that contain nickel include:1,3

  • Eyeglasses
  • Jewelry
  • Zippers or buttons
  • Keys
  • Coins
  • Belt buckles
  • E-cigarettes

In very rare cases, people may be allergic to foods that contain nickel. This might include soy products, canned foods, chocolate, clams, or cashews.1,2

Symptoms of nickel allergies

Symptoms of an allergic reaction to nickel usually start hours to days after contact with nickel. Usually, the reaction happens where the nickel touched your skin. But sometimes other areas can be affected. The reaction can last up to several weeks.1

Signs of an allergic reaction to nickel include:1,3

  • Rash or bumpy skin
  • Itching
  • Red or irritated skin
  • Dry patches on the skin
  • Blisters, pain, or pus on skin in severe cases

Rashes caused by a nickel allergy are not life-threatening. But they can be very uncomfortable. In severe cases, they may require medical treatment.1,3

Risk factors for a nickel allergy

Factors that may make a nickel allergy more common include:1,3

  • Ear or body piercings
  • Being allergic to other metals
  • Family history of nickel allergy
  • Working with metal

Diagnosis of nickel allergies

To diagnose a nickel allergy, your doctor will ask you about a medical history and examine your skin. After this, they may try a patch test. This involves placing a small amount of nickel on the skin in a patch. The site is then examined after 2 days for signs of a reaction.3

How to manage nickel allergies

The best way to manage a nickel allergy is to avoid nickel products. Some tips are:1,3,4

  • Wear hypoallergenic jewelry. Look for jewelry made from nickel-free stainless steel, surgical-grade stainless steel, titanium, 18-karat yellow gold, or nickel-free yellow gold and sterling silver. Make sure the front and back of any earrings are hypoallergenic.
  • Clothes do not contain an ingredient list, so it can be difficult to know if they contain nickel. Try to choose materials that do not look like metal to lower the risk. For example, this could be plastic buttons or zippers or leather watchbands.
  • Create a barrier. It takes direct contact with nickel to trigger an allergy. If you need to touch something that contains nickel, put a barrier between you. For example, if you touch nickel at work, try wearing gloves. You also can put clear nail polish on jewelry or buttons. But nail polish may need to be reapplied.
  • Buy nickel testing kits. You can use a kit to test objects at home.

If you do touch nickel, wash the area as soon as possible. You can also use antihistamines or topical corticosteroids to manage symptoms.3

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