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.