Contact Dermatitis

Contact Allergy to Nickel: Still #1 After All These Years

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Clinical Presentation

The classic presentation of Ni-ACD is a scaly erythematous dermatitis in a typical distribution (eg, earlobes [earrings], wrists [watch], periumbilical [belt]). These scenarios usually can be diagnosed by the astute clinician without patch testing; however, the source of exposure may be less obvious if the nickel-releasing item has intermittent contact with the skin (eg, coins in the pocket, furniture hardware, personal grooming devices).13 Other reported exposures include facial dermatitis from mobile phones, dermatitis of the ulnar hands from laptop use, and hand dermatitis from gaming controllers,14-16 perhaps another reason for some to unplug.

Sensitized individuals also may present with systemic contact dermatitis after airborne, oral, mucosal, or intravenous exposure. Presentations vary but have been reported to manifest as flare-up reactions in previously affected areas, pompholyx, diffuse dermatitis, flexural dermatitis, and baboon syndrome.17 Although it is unknown if airborne exposure alone is sufficient for sensitization, cases have been reported in occupational settings.18 One report described a man presenting with widespread dermatitis involving the extremities, chest, and genital area after his first day working at an electroplating plant.19

Systemic contact dermatitis from foods high in nickel (eg, chocolate, sunflower seeds, whole-grain flour, dried beans) and occasionally nonfood items (eg, coins) also has occurred. The so-called Easter egg hunt dermatitis has been described in children with Ni-ACD after candy ingestion.20 Another case described an 8-year-old girl and budding illusionist with severe diffuse dermatitis; a thorough history revealed the dermatitis began after she ingested a coin while performing a magic trick.21

Cases of nickel systemic contact dermatitis have been reported following medical device implantation, including reactions to cardiac devices, orthopedic implants, neurosurgery materials, and others.22 In addition, both intraoral and extraoral manifestations following application of orthodontic materials and dental implants have been reported.23,24 Although nickel-containing medical devices generally are well tolerated even in nickel-sensitive individuals, the development of systemic Ni-ACD has at times required device or hardware removal.22,23

After the Patch Test: Avoidance of Nickel

Counseling patients on nickel avoidance is critical to clinical improvement. Common nickel-containing items include jewelry, metal on clothing (eg, zippers, clasps, grommets), belt buckles, watches, glasses, furniture, coins, and keys. Numerous personal care products may also contain nickel, including nail clippers, eyelash curlers, tweezers, mascara tubes, and razors.25,26 Patients should be made aware that nickel-free alternatives are available for the majority of these products. Internet-based tips such as painting nail polish on products or iron-on patches tend to be of limited use in our experience. Patients may consider purchasing a nickel spot test to detect nickel in their environment; the dimethylglyoxime nickel spot test is inexpensive, rapid, and easy-to-use. To use the test, a small amount of the chemical is rubbed on the metal item using a cotton swab; a pink color indicates nickel release. Patients can be reassured that dimethylglyoxime does not harm jewelry.

Some general advice for patients regarding jewelry, the most common source of nickel exposure, is to only wear jewelry that is made from metals such as surgical-grade stainless steel, pure sterling silver, or platinum. If yellow gold is the preferred metal, it is prudent to be aware that lower karat items could potentially contain nickel. White gold should be avoided, as it often contains nickel to contribute to its color. Finally, gold-plated jewelry should be avoided, as the plating can wear off and expose a possibly nickel-containing base.

A low-nickel diet may be of benefit in select patients. A meta-analysis assessing systemic contact dermatitis from nickel ingestion found that 1% of nickel-sensitive individuals may be expected to react to nickel found in a normal diet.27 However, as with any diet, adherence can be difficult. Thankfully, Mislankar and Zirwas28 have developed a simple point-based system to help increase compliance. Additionally, a free mobile application is now available; Nickel Navigator can be used to track daily nickel intake and may be especially convenient for our more tech-savvy patients. In conjunction with a low-nickel diet, some authors also recommend eating meals high in vitamin C or supplementation with vitamin C, as co-ingestion has been shown to reduce nickel absorption.29

Final Interpretation

Nickel allergy remains common, found in up to 17.5% of patch tested patients. Despite regulation in the EU, nickel continues to have high prevalence of positive patch test reactions around the world. Nickel is not only found in jewelry and belt buckles but also in personal care products, electronics, and food. Allergen avoidance is key and requires knowledge of common items containing nickel and a low nickel diet for select patients.


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