Tungsten is a metallic element extracted from wolframite or scheelite ores. It has the highest melting point of any metal and is very strong, according to the Periodic-Table website, which makes it ideal for use in high-temperature structural materials. Tungsten is used as one of the metals in a variety of alloys, or mixtures of metals, such as tungsten-carbide and tungsten-nickel. These and other alloys are used to make high-density electrodes, filaments and wires, as well as jewelry valued for its durability. Although instances are rare, tungsten can cause allergies or sensitivities.
An allergic reaction results when your body reacts to a substance that your immune system identifies as dangerous. As a defense mechanism, the immune system produces antibodies to fight the perceived threat. These antibodies, called Immunoglobulin E, or IgE, are specific to a particular allergen such as tungsten. A severe allergy can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, with severe swelling, difficulty breathing and a sudden drop in blood pressure that can cause you to faint or go into shock.
IgE antibodies travel to cells throughout the body and cause symptoms such as itching, hives, eczema, a runny nose, sneezing or an asthma attack. Contact dermatitis is a localized area of reddened, itching skin that may progress to patches of dry, scaly skin; in severe cases the skin may blister and weep. Contact dermatitis from jewelry that contains tungsten is not usually a tungsten allergy. Nickel allergy from a tungsten-nickel alloy is the most common cause of contact dermatitis from metal jewelry, according to MayoClinic.com.
A Case Report of Tungsten Allergy
Although it is rare, metal workers or people who work in industries where they are exposed to tungsten dust can develop a tungsten allergy. In one case reported in the January 2005 “European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology,” an office worker developed difficulty breathing. His job required that he occasionally enter a room in which there was tungsten dust. Allergy testing confirmed that he had developed an allergy to tungsten.
Pneumonia Caused by Tungsten Hypersensitivity
In another case reported in the July 2008 “Journal of the Japanese Respiratory Society,” a man who had worked as a metal grinder complained of being short of breath. He was found to have pneumonia that was caused by a hypersensitivity to tungsten. In a similar case presentation for the American Thoracic Society, Dr. William S. Beckett noted that the combination of metals used in metal alloys such as tungsten-cobalt might cause more severe reactions than either metal alone.
Considerations and Warnings
Tungsten is one of a number of metals that may cause allergic reactions, especially skin irritations. Tungsten allergy is uncommon, and it is more likely that an allergic reaction is from another metal alloyed with tungsten. If you think you have an allergy to tungsten, contact a health care professional, particularly if you have symptoms such as breathing problems, facial swelling or hives after an exposure.
- European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: A Case of Immediate Hypersensitivity Reaction with Tungsten
- Journal of the Japanese Respiratory Society: A Case of Hard Metal Lung Disease Presenting a Type of Chronic Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis
- American Thoracic Society: Interstitial Lung Disease in a Metal Parts Coating Factory
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: Allergic Reactions: Tips to Remember
- The Periodic Table: The Element Tungsten
- MayoClinic.com: Nickel allergy
- United States Geological Survey: Tungsten
- University of Pittsburg Medical Center: Are You Allergic to Your Jewelry?
- ATI Firth Sterling: Material Safety Data Sheet