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Many people are allergic to metals used in jewelry.

Allergies to gold, silver, mercury, titanium, chromium, copper, cobalt, and especially nickel occur in about 15 percent of women and 3 percent of men.

The problem is most common in people who also have autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjögren’s syndrome. Heavy metal allergies can contribute to the symptoms of contact dermatitis, pustulosis palmoplantaris, lichen planus, dyshidrotic eczema, and burning mouth syndrome.

The important thing to understand about nickel allergies is that being allergic to nickel doesn't rule out the possibility of allergies to other heavy metals. However, because nickel is so much more common in the everyday environment than the other heavy metals, it is the most common problem element.

Nickel causes allergic reactions on the skin by activating cells called keratinocytes. These cells usually have the task of breaking down the proteins that serve as a scaffold for layering other skin cells. This is very important for rebuilding skin when you have had a cut, scrape, or burn. The problem is that activating these tissue-destroying cells leaves you with the same problems as those caused by skin injury, only from the inside out.

Allergies to nickel are "slow" reactions. Coming in contact with nickel in jewelry, especially earring studs, or coins, or household plumbing fixtures, doesn't cause an immediate allergic reaction like a bee sting. Instead, the immune system responds to nickel by activating more of the kinds of immune cells and immune factors associated with an infection. It's possible to have a nickel allergy become symptomatic long after you were in contact with the nickel itself. 

Once you get nickel into your system, it can take four to eight days to clear. The half life of nickel in your bloodstream is 17 to 39 hours, and it can take four or five times that long to stop having  an effect on you (assuming you aren't exposed again in the meantime).

How much nickel you absorb from food or nickel-contaminated water depends on what else is in your digestive tract. If you eat something that contains nickel after a meal, only about 1 percent of the nickel in that meal will go into your bloodstream. If you eat something that contains nickel on an empty stomach, then about 25 percent of nickel in the food or drink will be absorbed. The rest is removed with bowel movement.

Everything about nickel isn't bad. It's a cofactor for biotin (vitamin B7) and cobalamin (vitamin B12). Your body actually needs about 100 micrograms (millionths of a gram) of nickel every day. There are actually nickel supplements for people who have diabetes or iron-deficiency anemia, nickel helping the body absorb iron from food. It's never a good idea, however, to take more than 1 mg of nickel a day in supplements, and if you finish a bottle of 30 pills or capsules that contain nickel, you should wait at least six months before you take them again. Of course, if you know you are allergic to nickel, you shouldn't take these supplements at all.

What kinds of symptoms point to nickel allergy?

When you get too much nickel into your system, you may experience:

  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Cough.
  • Wheezing.
  • Headache.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Rash, at the site of contact with the metal.

Nickel can be a major contributing factor to hand eczema. It can also contribute to a condition known as baboon syndrome, which causes redness and irritation of the buttock, anogenital area, folds at the knees and elbows, and eyelids. 

The most important thing you can do to avoid aggravating a nickel allergy is to make absolutely sure you aren't taking a nutritional supplement that contains nickel, and that you are drinking water that isn't contaminated by nickel. Beyond that, the only real problem foods are chocolate, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts, as well as anything in a can (especially acidic foods in cans). The problem with other foods is where they are grown. If you happen to live in a place that has a lot of nickel its soils, then you need, odd as may seem, to avoid "locally grown" foods. If you do that, and you avoid the real problem foods and canned foods, you should have much easier symptoms.

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