An actual allergy to silver itself is extremely rare - certainly there have been a few recorded cases. Silver in its purest form has a very low allergenic probability and if you are one of the unlucky few who develop an allergy to silver then it is most likely a result of the nickel that is found in most jewelry as opposed to the silver itself. But how does this cause a reaction? It is said that 1 out of 9 people will suffer some form of reaction to nickel; surely a piece of jewelry is not naturally harmful to my body so why does my body feel that it needs to react?
You have your immune system to thank for this reaction. Essentially our immune system is designed to deal with things that are harmful to us - bacteria, viruses etc, but occasionally it will have a case of mistaken identity in that it incorrectly determines that; a substance, in this case nickel, is damaging and responds accordingly. All it takes is for this to happen once and your immune system will constantly perceive nickel to be dangerous to your body therefore causing a lifetime of discomfort if you continue to come into contact with objects with nickel (Ni) present. Unfortunately, even given the tremendous strides in modern science, the actual chemical process that is the cause of nickel allergy is unknown; though there has been suggestions in the medical world that it is genetic. What we do know is that it results in much discomfort for the victim.
Picture the scene. You're out with your friends wearing a new piece of silver. Arriving home some hours later you find that your neck, where the silver necklace was, has broken out into a red rash. It's itchy and immensely uncomfortable and irritable. This is contact dermatitis. It is in essence a skin reaction caused by, as we mentioned, your immune system mistakenly taking nickel for a harmful agent. This is your body's way of telling you that something doesn't agree with it. And just to complicated matters somewhat there are two forms of dermatitis; contact and irritant. They are both fundamentally a result of the offending object or substance but differ in that contact dermatitis only affects the area directly around where the object was touching and irritant dermatitis is more widespread. However the symptoms of both are similar.
If you think that you do suffer from a silver allergy as a result of the nickel present then you should have developed some of the following symptoms. Red rash, blisters, welts or hives, itchy and/or burning skin.
I think we can all agree that none of us want to experience any of these petulant symptoms. The first mentioned symptom, a red rash, is the most common when talking about a reaction to a silver piece of jewelry. However sometimes it is unlikely that this symptom will show immediately after contact with the offending object - it could take 3 or 4 days for the signs to start appearing. This is perhaps why a silver allergy is often difficult to diagnose as you could have came into contact with a number of irritants and allergenic agents in this time period. Furthermore your immune system is volatile. It could, on a whim, just decide that something will cause your body harm and result in the above mentioned symptoms. Therefore you could be wearing a silver necklace that contains nickel for years and experience no side-effects until one day your body decides to react.
The treatment will obviously depend on how harsh the symptoms are. More often than not they are just uncomfortable for the victim without posing any significant or severe health risks that would require emergency medical attention. However a trip to your doctor is strongly advised. Many people who have suffered some of the above ailments when coming into contact with silver or nickel have found that Egocort (Hydrocortisone) cream is of great benefit. This is a corticosteroids, a form of steroid hormones, that offer relief for such disorders as rashes, sunburn, dermatitis and eczema. Hence why it is popular amongst the few who are susceptible to silver allergy. It comes as an ointment that allows it to penetrate deeper under the skin.
What precautions can you take to ensure the chance of developing an allergy in the first place? If you have just got a piercing and are using a silver piece of jewelry then the chances of developing an allergy are much greater. The best advice in this scenario is to use stainless steel jewelry while the wound is healing. Stainless Steel always contains nickel however it is heavily compounded and constrained in this particular form of silver so its chances of coming into contact with the skin are minimal. That is not to say that this is a 100% guarantee that you won't develop any of the above symptoms but the chances are significantly reduced. Other preventions include ensuring that the area where the silver jewelry will be worn is completely dry; especially after, say, a bath. If there are still some traces of soap then this severely decreases the effectiveness of the skins protective shield allowing the nickel element to come into direct contact with your skin. Ensuring that the area is dry and clean before wearing any silver will do wonders towards preventing a reaction.
A further tip that a lot of unfortunate nickel allergy suffers recommended is to get your silver jewelry coated in palladium or rhodium. This are chemical elements with a silvery finish that will help protect your skin from coming into direct contact with the nickel that is present in most silver pieces of jewelry. Unfortunately the best advice might be to stop wearing silver jewelry, or anything that contains nickel completely.