Puzzled by a rash on a patient’s face? Maybe she’s allergic to the nickel in her cell phone.

“Mobile-phone dermatitis is worth bearing in mind any time you see a patient with a rash on the cheek or ear that cannot otherwise be explained,” says Dr. Graham Lowe of the British Association of Dermatologists.

The association has issued an alert to clinicians throughout the United Kingdom in the wake
of published reports describing mysterious facial rashes. Women are particularly vulnerable because they are more likely to have been sensitized by exposure to nickel-coated jewelry.

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The Mayo Clinic lists nickel among the top 10 causes of contact dermatitis. Earlier this year, researchers reported the suspected case of an 18-year-old man and tested 22 popular cell phone models for surface nickel.

Nearly half the phones contained some free nickel, particularly on decorative logos, metallic frames around the liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, and menu buttons (CMAJ. 2008;178:23-24). “Cell-phone use should be considered in the differential diagnosis of facial and ear dermatitis in individuals who are sensitive to nickel,” the researchers conclude.

Tests kits are readily available, so consumers and clinicians can easily ascertain the nickel content of any suspicious phone.