Healthbeat Report: Nickel Allergy

August 16, 2012 8:33:40 PM PDT
Betsy Keller watches her diet. She's not only trying to stay fit but she is lactose intolerant so she avoids dairy. The 29-year-old was eating what she thought were all the right things.

"Soy, milk, nuts, peanut butter, oatmeal I would have almost daily," said Keller.

And then about six months ago itchy strange hives and rashes started showing up.

"I was breaking out on the palms of my hands, on my feet, on my stomach, on my legs," she said.

Enter Dr. Mary Martini, a dermatologist at Northwestern Medicine. After a battery of tests revealed an allergy to nickel, Dr. Martini had another surprise for Keller.

"We've begun to look at dietary issues and certain foods are very high in nickel," Dr. Martini said.

So what she was eating was suspected of causing the skin reactions normally associated with metal objects that come into contact with skin.

Up to 15 percent of the population suffers from some from of nickel allergy. It can be found everywhere -- from coins to cell phones to cooking utensils and, of course, jewelry. But there are anecdotal reports of increasing reactions as more people are choosing healthier foods, many which happen to be high in nickel. There are a lot but here's a small taste:

  • soy
  • beans
  • spinach
  • broccoli
  • seeds
  • whole grains
  • oatmeal
  • even tea and chocolate

"About 10 percent of what we ingest is used by the body. We are not sure what the body does with it but it does absorb it," said Dr. Martini.

Most people have no problem with nickel rich foods. And unlike food allergies that may cause immediate or life threatening symptoms doctors say nickel does not cause a fast reaction. Symptoms tend to build up over time.

Keller remembers having trouble with her pierced ears as a child, but it wasn't until she was eating large amounts of soy that her body had a strong reaction. Among other things, she's now avoiding nickel rich foods and says the dermatitis is gone.

"I would never have thought in a million years it was nickel," she said.

Skeptics are not so convinced reactions to nickel rich foods are increasing. They say more research is needed. But if you do have unexplained rashes and are considering a dietary change, you may want to consult an allergist or dermatologist.

Relationship between nickel allergy and diet:
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17921609

Dietary Nickel as a Cause of Systemic Contact Dermatitis:
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

Nickel Allergy: Causes
www.mayoclinic.com/health/nickel-allergy/ds00826/dsection=causes


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