Living with a metal allergy: 'It can be a miserable day-to-day'
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Everyday life for Sommer Gaffney is like walking through an allergy minefield in which she has to worry about having a reaction to anything she eats, uses or wears.
Gaffney struggles with many allergic reactions, but one above all others has proven especially problematic — her allergy to certain metals.
For Gaffney, 42, of New Albany, Ohio, that means most jewelry, unless it's genuine gold, is off limits. She can't wear certain makeup, has to be careful about hair dyes and is afraid to get a tattoo she wants.
"It can be a miserable day-to-day process," Gaffney said. "Unfortunately, it's kind of like a trial-and-error situation ... I try to stay away from it as much as possible, but it's hard."
Metal allergies are actually quite common, affecting 10% to 15% of people, or between 1.1 million and 1.75 million Ohioans, said Dr. Susan Massick, a dermatologist at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center. Symptoms tend to show up more in women.
Nickel, cobalt and chromium are the most frequently seen metal allergies, though some people also can have a reaction to copper and even gold, Massick said.
The first sign of a metal allergy is usually a rash of some type, said Massick.
"Often, that rash becomes more and more pronounced and the tell-tale sign is it becomes itchy," Massick said. "It will depend on the frequency of the exposure to the metal."
Similar to other allergic reactions, Massick said metal allergies are thought to be an immune system response. A person's body overreacts to the metal as a foreign body, causing the irritation, Massick said.
While severe metal allergies are uncommon, they do exist, said Dr. Kara Wada, an allergist and immunologist at Wexner Medical Center.
Some people with severe reactions have to go so far as to watch what they eat and avoid foods that could contain nickel, Wada said.
Nickel is found in trace amounts in water and soil, according to the National Institutes of Health. That means it can be found in certain vegetables, such as Kale, cabbage or lettuce, among other foods.
Gaffney loves chocolate, another food known to contain metal, and fears she may one day have to give it up if her allergy worsens.
It usually takes years for someone with a metal allergy to show symptoms, Wada said. The repeated exposure, she said, is what causes the skin irritation.
The exposure, Wada said, may be key to explaining why women are more likely to develop metal allergies. Typically, women come into contact with metal more than men because it's in the jewelry they wear and the makeup they put on.
The average woman uses something like 15 cosmetics a day, Wada said.
"Upon repeated exposure that will continue to reignite that inflammation," Wada said. "It can be really challenging if you think about it ... Just one exposure to a contact allergen can add more lighter fluid to the fire."
Gaffney has tested the exposure theory and it holds true, she said.
One of the first signs that tipped Gaffney off to the possibility she had a metal allergy was when she developed a rash to a zipper in a pair of jeans. Although she's long known she had a sensitivity to certain metals, she was only diagnosed with an allergy in May.
Benadryl, steroids and creams can help stem the effects of metal allergies, but doctors like Wada and Massick said the best way to treat it is to avoid metals altogether.
So that's what Gaffney tries to do.
She uses an earpiece when talking on the phone so she doesn't have to hold the device up to her face. She's tried dozens of soaps to find ones that have less metal and impact her allergy less.
Sometimes though, metal is impossible to avoid, Gaffney said. For instance, in late August she went in for a checkup at her dentist.
The metal equipment at the dentist's office caused her mouth to swell and her gums to hurt. All she could do was take Benadryl and wait for the allergic reaction to pass.
After her Aug. 23 dentist appointment, she was still in pain four days later.
"On a scale of one to 10, it's a 10," Gaffney said of the frustration she has with her allergy. "I have to be so careful all the time and it's just hard to not use some of the things that pertain to it."