SUNDAY, Nov. 14 (HealthDay News) -- If you're an incessant cell phone user and a mysterious rash appears along your jaw, cheek or ear, chances are you're allergic to nickel, a metal commonly used in cell phones.
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While allergists have long been familiar with nickel allergy, "cell phone rash" is just starting to show up on their radar screen, said Dr. Luz Fonacier, head of allergy and immunology at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y.
"Increased use of cell phones with unlimited usage plans has led to prolonged exposure to the nickel in phones," said Fonacier, who is scheduled to discuss the condition in a larger presentation on skin allergies Nov. 14 at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology annual meeting in Phoenix.
Symptoms of cell phone allergy include a red, bumpy, itchy rash in areas where the nickel-containing parts of a cell phone touch the face. It can even affect fingertips of those who text continuously on buttons containing nickel. In severe cases, blisters and itchy sores can develop.
Fonacier said she sees many patients who are allergic to nickel and don't know it. "They come in with no idea of what is causing their allergic reaction," said Fonacier, also a professor of clinical medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Sometimes, she traces her patients' symptoms to their cell phones.
In 2000, a researcher in Italy documented the first case of cell phone rash, prompting other research on the condition. In a 2008 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, U.S. researchers tested for nickel in 22 handsets from eight manufacturers; 10 contained the metal. The parts with the most nickel were the menu buttons, decorative logos on the headsets and the metal frames around the liquid crystal display (LCD) screens.
Cell phone rash is still not well known, said allergist Dr. Stanley M. Fineman, a clinical associate professor at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. While he's treated more cases of nickel allergy caused by piercings than by cell phones, "it's good for allergists and dermatologists to have cell phone contact dermatitis on their radar screens," he said.
Nickel allergy affects an estimated 17% of women and 3% of men. Women typically develop cell phone rash more often because they are more likely to have been sensitized to nickel after ear piercing, or had an allergic reaction to nickel-containing jewelry. If you get rashes from costume jewelry or the metal button on your jeans, you're probably nickel-sensitive, said Fonacier.
To treat cell phone rash, you can apply a mild over-the-counter corticosteroid, she said. (Ask your doctor about how long you can safely use it.) Then, keep the nickel-bearing parts of your phone off your face.
"Buy a phone cover, opt for a hands-free device, use the speaker phone or switch to a phone that doesn't contain nickel on surfaces that touch your skin," she said. Consult an allergist if the rash lingers.
If you know you're nickel-allergic, go online and order a nickel spot-test kit before you buy a new phone, Fonacier suggested. "Put a drop of the liquid [dimethylglyoxime] on a cotton swab and dab the swab on those parts of the phone where nickel is typically found," she said. "If the applicator turns pink, the phone contains a good amount of nickel."
Some researchers believe the United States should regulate nickel more stringently, as some European countries do, said Fonacier. Since 1994, the EU Nickel Directive has limited nickel release from consumer products that come into direct, prolonged contact with skin. Since then, the prevalence of nickel sensitivity has gone down in Germany and Denmark, according to studies published by researchers in those countries.
The best remedy for cell phone dermatitis is not to get it in the first place, said Fonacier. "Just as you cannot tell a woman not to wear cosmetics because she is allergic to fragrance, you cannot tell people not to use cell phones because they are allergic to nickel. There would be no compliance," she said. "So prevention is the key."
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SOURCES: Luz Fonacier, M.D., head, allergy and immunology, Winthrop University Hospital, Mineola, N.Y., and professor, clinical medicine, State University of New York, Stony Brook; Stanley M. Fineman, M.D., vice president, American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and clinical associate professor, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta; Nov. 14, 2010, presentation, American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology annual meeting, Phoenix