COLUMBUS, Ohio – Whole grains, oatmeal, legumes, nuts and soy are all recommended as part of a healthy, balanced diet. These foods also contain trace amounts of nickel. As a result, more people are developing allergic reactions from nickel, according to a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“The reason, we think, is that there has been a shift in dietary habits. As people try to eat healthier, they’re actually eating more nickel,” says Dr. Matthew Zirwas, a dermatologist at Ohio State who has seen a gradual increase in nickel food allergies over the past five years. “I’ve seen people who have had these itchy rashes for years. It can be really hard to figure out that the nickel in their diet is the source,” adds Zirwas, who has earned a reputation for being persistent in tracking down the causes of previously unknown skin allergens.
About 15 percent of people in the United States are sensitive to nickel and will develop contact dermatitis of the skin from costume jewelry, watches, clothing and other items containing nickel. Zirwas says nickel food allergies are different.
“It’s cumulative. If you start eating more nickel, it slowly builds up in your body until you reach a level where your immune system starts to react, and that level is different for everybody,” says Zirwas.
Symptoms include an itchy rash that can appear anywhere on the body, but it is more common on the palms of the hands and the outside of the elbows. In addition to rashes, Zirwas has also seen patients with fatigue, nausea and joint pain as a result of dietary nickel.
Other foods that are known to be high in nickel include dark chocolate, canned vegetables and fruits, shellfish, ground meat and some vitamins. Nickel can also be released from stainless steel pots and pans, especially when acidic foods like tomatoes, lemons or vinegar are being heated.
Sara Plumby of St. Clairsville, Ohio has learned to avoid these foods since Dr. Zirwas diagnosed her nickel food allergy last fall. She says she endured itchy rashes, trouble sleeping and a burning sensation in her tongue for several years.
“I especially felt worse last summer and I couldn’t understand why because I was eating really healthy foods,” says Plumby. “It was such a relief to finally know why and what to do about it.”
For people who have puzzling rashes and have had reactions to metal items such as earrings, belt buckles or watches, Zirwas suggests they pay attention to their diets. In addition to avoiding foods that are high in nickel, Dr. Zirwas tells patients to take vitamin C with every meal because it will bind to the nickel in the food and prevent absorption.
Nickel is one of the most common metals in our environment. It naturally occurs as a mineral in soil and in drinking water. Nickel is commonly used as a protective coating for other metals and it is used in coins, glass, ceramics, magnets and batteries.
“It’s not dangerous for someone who is not allergic to it,” says Zirwas.
Contact: Marti Leitch, Medical Center Public Affairs and Media Relations, 614-293-3737 or Marti.Leitch@osumc.edu