Could you be allergic to your smartphone?
As it turns out, you can be allergic to your phone--the materials in it, that is. While metal allergies are more commonly associated with jewelry, metal allergens can be found in a variety of common household items, including your phone.
In most cases, your allergy is the result of alloys in the outer covering of the phone, which your skin comes in contact with. Here’s what you need to know about a smartphone allergy.
A smartphone allergy isn’t an allergy to the smartphone itself, though plenty of us may feel like we have an allergic reaction to the stress that pours from our phone.
You can’t be allergic to your phone per se, but you can be allergic to the metal components that come in contact with your skin.
Allergies to the metal components of a smartphone is usually associated with an allergic reaction called contact dermatitis, a red, itchy rash caused by direct contact with the allergen. This is not contagious or life threatening, but it can be quite uncomfortable.
This allergy is a type of metal allergy. Your body reacts to a metal allergy the same as any other allergy--your skin cells pick up small metal molecules which travel to your lymph nodes. Your immune system registers these molecules as dangerous foreign invaders and mounts an immune response to protect you.
The result? Redness, blistering, scaling, itching, or swelling at the contact site. These symptoms can range in severity depending on the person and appear within 24 to 48 hours of contact.
You can develop an allergy to any metal--it all depends on your immune system. That said, most metal allergies can be traced to three usual suspects:
That’s because these metals are frequently used to alloy with other metals, more often than most other metal alloys because the materials are comparatively cheap. This is why a metal allergy is often associated with cheap jewelry--low-price jewelry often relies on these metal alloys.
The most common of the three is nickel allergies, which affect 17% of women and 3% of men. A cobalt allergy affects roughly 2% of the population, and like nickel allergies, a cobalt allergy is more common in women than men at a rate of 2:1. It is worth noting that metal allergies can (and often do) occur in groups, so someone with a nickel allergy may also have cobalt and chromate allergies.
Cellular phone contact dermatitis is a contact-based allergic reaction, i.e. you have to touch the allergen to get a skin reaction, as opposed to some airborne food allergies.
It typically starts with a red, itchy rash where the phone touches the side of your face, especially around your ear. It may also affect your hands. While exposure to nickel or cobalt in everyday items like coins or keys is brief, your risk of a worsening reaction increase the more you use items containing your allergen--including your smartphone.
Symptoms include things like:
Keep in mind that these vary widely between people.
Depending on your allergy, it may come with complications.
In a cobalt allergy, for example, taking vitamin B12 can worsen cobalt contact dermatitis into other chronic skin issues, including vesicular hand dermatitis or systemic contact dermatitis. Vitamin B12 injections can also trigger a cobalt allergy reaction.
If you think you have a metal allergy, or you’re not sure what metals you might be allergic to, it’s a good idea to get an allergy test.
Your doctor can typically diagnose a nickel or cobalt allergy based on your skin’s appearance, but if the cause of your skin reaction isn’t apparent, they may refer you to an allergist or dermatologist to perform a patch test, i.e. a contact hypersensitivity allergen test.
This is a common allergy test which is safe even for people with severe allergies. In a patch test, your doctor will apply low concentrations of potential allergens (including nickel or cobalt) to your skin and cover the area with small patches. These patches will stay on for two days, at which point your doctor removes them, unless you have a major allergy and have a skin reaction immediately.
When meeting with your doctor about a potential metal allergy, you should come prepared with a few items to help your doctor assess the issue.
You should write down a list of all of your symptoms, including when they first occurred and whether they occur in any discernible pattern. You should also make a list of any vitamins or dietary supplements you take (remember, vitamin B12 supplements can cause an allergic reaction in people with cobalt allergies).
You should also bring a list of questions, such as:
These questions will help you steer the conversation to confirm your allergy and give you the chance to ask about management options.
Here’s the good news: you don’t need to give up smartphones to avoid aggravating your skin allergy.
Medical studies of nickel and cobalt content in smartphones are older (the most recent is from 2013). That study found that no iPhones or Androids tested positive for nickel or cobalt, while 29.4% of Blackberrys tested positive for nickel (none for cobalt). 90.5% of flip phones tested positive for nickel and 52.4% tested positive for cobalt.
The good news is that almost no one uses Blackberrys or flip phones anymore.
The bad news is that iPhone and Android models have updated many times over since 2013. A more recent study (2014) of the iPad suggests that iPad models were linked to rising cases of nickel contact dermatitis in children.
Studies found that after-market cellphone cases were actually some of the biggest culprits in smartphone or metal allergies.
If you’re not sure whether your phone contains nickel or cobalt, it’s a good idea to check the phone’s spec sheet before buying. The same goes for any phone case--pay careful attention to any metal alloys, or stick with plastic cases. You can also cover a phone that contains nickel or cobalt with a plastic case and a screen protector if needed.
There is no cure for a smartphone or metal allergy--it’s an immune system response, not an illness.
The best way to manage metal allergies is to avoid the allergen completely. This mitigates any potential risk from repeated exposure. The simplest approach is to do your homework on a smartphone model and phone case without any nickel or cobalt.
That said, nickel and cobalt alloys can sometimes be tricky to work around, especially if you can’t afford to swap out your phone model for an allergen-free version. Here are a few options to help manage your metal allergy without sacrificing your phone.
One option is a prescription medication to reduce inflammation and improve the condition of a rash from a skin reaction. Some options include things like:
For mild symptoms, you can also use over-the-counter antihistamine pills and hydrocortisone cream.
If you already have a severe skin reaction (usually indicated by blistering) stop using your phone and other metal allergens immediately and see your doctor--you don’t want an infection.
If you don’t respond to oral or topical steroids, your doctor may prescribe a treatment called phototherapy, which is when a doctor exposes your skin to small, controlled amounts of ultraviolet light. That said, it can take months for this therapy to have an effect on a metal allergy reaction, so doctors prefer other options first.
It’s also a good idea to supplement over-the-counter and prescription treatments with home remedies. These can help reduce the effects of an allergic reaction, though they may not work for everyone.
A good option for many patients is to moisturize regularly, as this can help rebuild your skin barrier and reduce your risk of infection. Petroleum jelly or mineral oil are both good options. You should also use a soothing lotion like calamine to relieve itchiness (the more you itch, the worse the rash will get).
If you have blisters, a wet compress can help dry them. Simply soak a clean cloth in tap water or Burow’s solution.
Be careful of certain over-the-counter ointments like antibiotic creams--some contain ingredients that can worsen your skin reaction. Ask your doctor about any over-the-counter creams you should avoid or any creams they recommend.
No parent wants to see their child suffer, especially from chronic and uncomfortable allergic reactions. Unfortunately, allergies can be a bit trickier to manage in children than adults, since parents often have to help children manage their allergies (especially if they’re young children) while teaching kids how to manage allergies on their own.
For parents and caretakers, your most important first step is to figure out allergen sources and get your child tested for allergies.
If you think your child might be having an allergic reaction, take them to the doctor. Make note of any patterns in their reactions--this can help you narrow down the source of the reaction. Doctors can often identify a metal allergy based on the skin, but if the source is unclear, ask the doctor to do a patch test.
From there, make a list of any potential sources of allergens, including:
Try to remove all potential allergen sources. This may require you to think outside the box to catch everything--if you buy metal scissors, for example, always be sure to buy scissors with plastic or wood handles.
Once you’ve identified your child’s allergy, it becomes easier to manage it.
First, eliminate your child’s allergen triggers, and teach them what to be careful of so they don’t accidentally bring on a reaction when you’re not there. This will also give them the skills to avoid potential allergens at school or a friend’s house.
You should also get allergy medication as needed and have your child keep those medications on hand as needed, including soothing lotion so that they don’t itch during the day.
You should also inform your child’s school of their allergy so that the school will know to warn teachers. That way, you can work with the school and your child’s teachers to find ways around your child’s allergy.
97% of Americans own a cellphone of some kind, with 85% of Americans owning a smartphone. Technology is ever more prevalent in our lives, and it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. But metal allergies are also a concern for many people. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your smartphone, though--you just have to learn how to manage your allergy.
If you can, opt for a phone model that does not include nickel, cobalt, or chromium--carefully read the phone’s spec sheet for those details. If you can’t replace your phone, cover it with a non-metal case and screen protector. And if you do get an allergic reaction, take the time to identify the source and treat the skin reaction right away.
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