Nothing glitters like gold, but for a surprising number of people, gold jewelry might be more sting than bling. What are the risks of putting metal on, through or under our skin?
As many as one in four women may have allergic reactions to metals.
Localized areas of skin that are itchy, red and/or swollen can indicate an allergic reaction to the metals in jewelry. Nickel is the most common culprit; if your 14k gold piercing, bracelet, necklace or ring is making you itch, it’s the nickel in the gold—not the gold itself—causing the problem. Women are more commonly affected by a nickel allergy than men. People rarely have a reaction to pure gold (24k), nor to other metals used in fine jewelry such as platinum or titanium. Sterling silver is an alloy, so there is a small risk of reaction for someone who’s allergic.
You may not be wearing nickel, but you’re still eating it.
Trace amounts of nickel can be found everywhere, including our soil, water and even in the air. Certain foods have a high content of the metal—notably whole wheat, legumes, chocolate, tea, and nearly all canned foods—and consuming these foods increases susceptibility to a skin reaction for someone who’s allergic. “A nickel-free diet [is recommended] for those with cutaneous or skin symptoms that are persistent or bothersome. In general, symptoms are limited to the skin,” confirms Dr. Clifford W. Bassett, vice chair of the public education committee of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
Oddly enough, there’s very little nickel in a five-cent piece, though loose change can prompt a reaction in highly allergic people. Nickel content in some detergents and makeup can also result in irritated skin or contact dermatitis. Those who are highly allergic may even need to avoid foods cooked in stainless steel pots and pans.
Some hip surgeries can lead to metal allergies.
In hip resurfacing surgery, the femoral head or “ball” of the hip is covered with a metal cap made of cobalt chrome. Though the procedure has advantages over traditional hip replacement (the damaged femoral head doesn’t have to be removed, only capped), one risk is that the rubbing together of metal parts can leave tiny metal particles floating in the bloodstream. Their effect on the system at large is unknown, but some patients of the surgery develop a metal allergy.
Metals used in dental work rarely cause an allergic reaction.
In a recent case, a woman experienced severe dermatitis over her entire body after getting dentures. Once the alloys used in her dentures were replaced with titanium, her skin cleared up completely. However, the American Dental Association says that allergic reactions to dental amalgams (silver-colored fillings) are very rare, with fewer than 100 cases on record.
If we all end up with RFID tags implanted under our skin, similar to the ones already used to track pets and even soldiers, we may learn more about metal allergies—the hard way.
Confused by health myths and misinformation? Each week, Rich Maloof talks to leading health experts to bring you the straight facts on a broad range of health topics.
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