Metal hypersensitivity is a disorder of the immune system. Interestingly, it is a common condition that affects 10% to 15% of the population. It can produce a wide variety of symptoms, including rashes, swelling, or pain due to contact with certain metals. In addition to the local skin reactions, metal hypersensitivity can manifest itself as more chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Furthermore, there are many local and systemic symptoms that, when considered together, can be caused by metal hypersensitivities. It is estimated that up to 17% of women and 3% of men are allergic to metal and that 1% to 3% of people are allergic to cobalt and chromium. These types of reactions can be localized reactions that are limited to one only area, but they can also be more generalized and affect other more distant parts of the body.
How your body reacts
It really helps to understand what happens when your body comes in contact with a metal to which you’re allergic. Metal allergies are similar to any other type of allergic reaction. Your skin cells pick up small molecules of metal, which further travel to your lymph nodes. Your body treats the offending substance like a foreign invader, and quickly mounts an immune response. It results in redness, itching, swelling or a rash, with skin blistering or scaling at the site. Each time you’re re-exposed to the offending metal, your skin reacts in the same way.
In addition to the local skin reactions, metal hypersensitivity can manifest itself as more chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. There are numerous local and systemic symptoms that can be caused by metal hypersensitivities. Common symptoms of metal hypersensitivity from wearing non-hypoallergenic jewelry include:
- blistering of the skin
- joint pain
- muscle pain
The symptoms of metal hypersensitivity are caused when the body's immune system starts to view metal ions as foreign threats. The cells that make up the immune system generally kill foreign bacteria and viruses by causing inflammation. If they begin attacking metal ions that you touch, eat, inhale, or have implanted in you, they can produce a variety of symptoms. Potential metal allergens are very common in everyday life. Typical sources such as watches, coins, and jewelry are very common causes. However, there are also other less obvious sources of metal in our daily lives. For instance, cosmetic products and contact lens solutions may also contain metals that can trigger a reaction at the area of contact. Nickel is one of the most frequent allergens, causing significant local contact dermatitis. Cobalt, copper, and chromium are also common culprits. These metals can be found in consumer items such as jewelry, cell phones, and certain clothing items.
Other places metal can lurk
Of course, you’ll need to look beyond jewelry for potential sources of metal. Metal can hide in products and devices where you’d least expect it to be. Here are some surprising sources:
- Tattoo inks. If you’re considering a tattoo and have sensitive skin, you might want to hold off because pigments in tattoo inks can contain cobalt and some other heavy metals.
- Cell phones. If you’re allergic to nickel or cobalt, your phone is a very possible source of exposure.
- Clothing hardware. Buttons, as well as rivets and zippers, are possible sources of metal exposure.
- Cosmetics and soaps. Before you put your face on or take it off, check the label on the products you’re regularly using. Cosmetics such as eyeliner and eye shadow and some soaps may contain chromates.
Treatment of metal hypersensitivity is very individualized, as the allergens and reactions can be extremely different from person to person. Skin hypersensitivities can often be resolved by avoiding the item that causes the reaction. If the dermatitis is more significant, the doctor can prescribe corticosteroid creams and ointments in order to reduce the local inflammation. The doctor can also prescribe oral antihistamines to further reduce the allergic reaction.
While the metal allergy itself can’t be prevented, the best possible way to prevent an allergic reaction to metal is to avoid all objects containing it. Make sure to always check with the manufacturer, retailer, or label to find out if an item is made of or contains metal before you buy or use it.