Jewelry, jeans and skin allergy testing– Musings of an NYC Dermatologist

  • Posted on: Aug 18 2016
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blue jeans

Most little girls of West Indian descent of my generation had their ears pierced during infancy.  My mother waited until I was older to pierce mine.  It was because I was a twin.  She was concerned that my brother would see my bright shiny earrings and pull on them.  As I waited years to be allowed to wear earrings, like all the other little girls, it was impressed on me that it was important to take care of my ears should I get them pierced.  I was warned that poor care could result in infection—and that my holes would close up.

I finally had my ears pierced when I was seven years old.  My mother, a physician, did it in the living room with a surgical needle and a potato.  I had suture in my ear for at least a month.  Then I graduated to getting real earrings.  The starter earrings were gold.  Then I expanded to other fun earrings.  I took care of my piercings, cleaning them regularly with alcohol, but I always had problems.  My ears would get itchy and red.  They would crust.  I’d put antibiotic ointment on them—it didn’t help.  Eventually I had to take the earrings out.  My ears would close up and I’d feel ashamed that I wasn’t mature enough to take care of earring piercings.  By the time I was in high school I had had my ears pierced three times.  It was years before I figured out that my problem was not poor habits resulting in an infection.

Eventually I realized that the problem wasn’t me but the earrings I was wearing.  I would get a reaction to some earrings and not others.  I was relieved to finally figure out that I was allergic to nickel in some earrings.  Avoiding this metal allowed me to enjoy wearing earrings without a reaction.  There were even “fun” earring made with surgical steel for nickel allergic people like me.

Now, nickel allergy in jewelry is a well-known cause of contact dermatitis—particularly in North American women.  Some causes of nickel allergy, however, are not as well known.  Now that I am a dermatologist, I more commonly see people coming in with a recurrent itchy, rash on the abdomen that they cannot explain.  This, too, is a nickel allergy—usually to a belt buckle or the metal studs on the buttons of jeans.

Sometimes it’s obvious that someone likely has a nickel allergy, but types of skin allergy testing, called patch testing can help more directly identify what may be causing a recurrent rash.  Patch testing usually requires 3 visits in 1 week.  The first is to place the test patches and the 2nd and 3rd are to read the results.  If you think that you might be having a reaction to something your skin is coming into contact with, make an appointment to be considered for patch testing today.

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Posted in: General Dermatology, Uncategorized