A silver allergy is a form of metal hypersensitivity, which is a disorder of the immune system. It’s a condition that affects around 10 to 15% of the population, although it mostly affects women. A silver allergy can produce a reaction called contact dermatitis, which includes symptoms such as swelling, rashes, or pain.
Most of the time, these skin allergies are actually nickel allergies. Because pure silver is usually too soft to be made into jewelry, a small amount of nickel is mixed in to keep the silver firm and lustrous. When the nickel seeps out of the jewelry, it comes into contact with the skin and can cause an allergic reaction. By avoiding nickel substances and using alternative metals such as sterling silver, you should be able to wear silver jewelry with no skin problems.
A nickel allergy occurs when the body’s immune system views the nickel ions as foreign threats. Most of the time, the cells that make up your immune system will only fight off viruses, bacteria, and other toxic substances. In cases of metal hypersensitivity, the immune system rejects the metal substance and produces a variety of symptoms to combat it.
Metals such as nickel, cobalt, copper, and chromium are usually the culprits of these allergic reactions. These metals are found in everyday items such as jewelry, watches, and coins. These metals are frequently mixed into silver to make the product stronger and more resistant to rust. For some silver jewelry, nickel is also used as the base metal.
Patients who have autoimmune disorders are at a higher risk for metal hypersensitivity, because their immune system is in a constant state of activity. You are also more likely to develop a nickel allergy if your family members are allergic as well.
A nickel allergy often occurs after prolonged exposure and only in the area of the skin the nickel came into contact with. Symptoms of contact dermatitis will begin to appear within 24 to 48 hours and can last for 2 to 4 weeks. Common signs of an allergic reaction include:
To learn whether you have nickel allergy, you should visit your dermatologist. They may order a laboratory test where a sample of your blood will be taken. Laboratory technicians will observe your white blood cells’ reaction to nickel ions and check if any physical changes occur with the cells. Increased activity of white blood cells indicates a nickel allergy.
Your dermatologist may also conduct an allergy test by exposing various metal ions to your skin, to see if there is a negative reaction. This is called a “patch test” where the suspected ions are applied to the patch. The patch is placed on the skin for 48 hours and removed by the doctor. If the skin shows signs of contact dermatitis, then the diagnosis may be a metal allergy.
The simplest way to avoid a nickel allergy is to remove the item that causes the reaction. This may be difficult if the jewelry’s base metal is unknown. If you suspect that a piece of jewelry is causing your skin discomfort or discoloration, take it off until it heals then put it on again to see if it causes a similar reaction. Here are three other ways you can avoid a nickel or silver allergy.
There is a wide range of nickel-free metals you can choose for your hypoallergenic jewelry, piercings, and accessories: sterling silver, or surgical-grade steel and gold. Here are some alternatives to replace silver jewelry:
At Walk-in Dermatology, our team of highly experienced medical professionals and board-certified dermatologists will diagnose and treat your skin allergies. Our doctors specialize in both medical and cosmetic dermatology, so we can help your skin to look and feel its best. Book an appointment with us.