Rebecca Smithers recalls how she beat her allergy

It started when I was in my mid-teens, with mild itching of the skin under the buckle of my watchstrap. Just a minor, sporadic rash which did not seem too much to worry about and which I simply learned to live with. But a year later the condition got worse; by the time I took my driving test at 17, I was so embarrassed by the weeping sores that had spread up my left arm from my wrist that I covered up my forearm with a bandage.

That was all rather longer ago than I care to remember, but the news last week that as many as one in ten Britons suffer from some form of nickel allergy, which is being agitated by exposed nickel elements in kettles, brought back painful memories. What I had at the time, although I didn't realise it and it was barely recognised by medical staff, was an extreme allergy to nickel which appeared as an eczema-type rash. While I must have had it since childhood - and indeed, I still have it - it only appeared when I was into my teens, initially as a mild skin reaction to the nickel coatings and content in the buckles of watchstraps and cheap metal jewellery. I had never heard of it before and by the time it was diagnosed, I needed hospital treatment.

The Food Standards Agency estimates that between 7% and 10% of people suffer from some sort of nickel allergy - predominantly young girls and women who develop the allergy by reacting to nickel-coated jewellery. So the news that the government is to launch research into whether boiled water from old-style electric kettles is worsening skin allergies, through nickel leaching off exposed elements, is to be welcomed. Consumers are advised not to buy new kettles with exposed elements and to opt instead for those with a stainless steel element.

It is a relief at least to know that doctors are now aware of the problem. My own GP concluded that I had some sort of eczema but made no attempt to get to the bottom of what had caused it. I stubbornly refused to use the hydrocortisone cream I was prescribed, after a doctor friend advised that regular use of the steroids would gradually weaken the skin. Needless to say, things got worse before they got better.

Weeks later, after a referral to the local hospital, I went to see a dermatologist who carried out a "patch test" - during which 20 different substances were taped to my back - and declared that I was allergic to nickel. He booked me into hospital immediately for "intensive skin treatment". All this as I was about to start university, and during a record hot summer that had intensified the itching and the sensitivity of my skin. I found myself in a cottage hospital on a specialist skin ward for women, where my treatment involved being smeared with paraffin cream every day and given regular baths in a mysterious purple liquid (bromide) which temporarily turned my skin brown. The only thing that made it easier was being on a ward with sufferers of psoriasis - most of whom had lost their hair - and so were clearly a lot worse off than me.

Looking back now, it should have been blindingly obvious that nickel was the problem, being as it was the core element in the cheap metal fashion jewellery that was all the rage in the late 70s. The vogue then was for large, Gypsy-style clip-on hoop earrings, and arms laden with great clanking "gilt" bangles. They were so cheap that the "gold" came off pretty much immediately, often leaving an attractive smear of green verdigris on the skin. Even shoe buckles and bra hooks caused minor irritation, though not to the same extent as on my arms and ears. I didn't have pierced ears at the time, so cheap clip-on earrings were the only answer for me. I also found that my skin reacted not just to the buckle on my watch strap, but also to the back of the watch itself.

The problem, as with most skin conditions, was that the more my skin itched, the more I scratched - and the worse it got. My earlobes were left red raw and skinless while what was originally a fine rash on my wrists and arms became a blistering, yukky mess. Sometimes it was easier to carry on wearing the offending jewellery because it covered up the problem.

I tried little tips, such as painting my earring clips and watch buckle with clear nail varnish, but that didn't work. I even found a preparation called "liquid skin" which I hoped would help heal my poor, weeping earlobes. By the time I ended up in hospital I was angry with myself for having let it get so bad.

The paraffin creams and bromide baths aside, however, it did mark a turning point. I left hospital with beautifully soft, spot-free - and, amazingly - scar-free skin, and another stash of cream was promptly binned, along with the bulk of the ghastly jewellery. I set about weeding out everything with even a vague trace of nickel from my life and went to see a homeopath. I had my ears pierced so that I could wear inexpensive gold or gold-plated studs.

The visit to the homeopath involved further tests, which revealed some other, minor allergy problems in my diet. The answer to the itching? A quick dab of cider vinegar on the wrist. And I started taking zinc supplements to make my skin healthier.

Today, things are much improved because I know what I am dealing with. Thankfully, nickel allergy seems finally to have been recognised by manufacturers of watches and jewellery, who have now made a much wider range of hypoallergenic products available (and also, crucially, affordable). But I'll never, ever wear Gypsy-style earrings again - not even solid gold ones.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.