Itching skin and a raised, bumpy rash at the site of contact are the most common signs of an allergic reaction to silicone. More generalized symptoms can also include watery eyes, airway constriction, and anaphylactic shock, but these tend to be very rare. People who have a bad reaction to silicone while wearing a therapeutic mask or while connected to a medical device made of the substance may also experience anxiety and claustrophobia, symptoms which often last for hours or days after the contact has stopped.
Silicone allergies tend to be very rare, but most medical scholars agree that they do exist in a small number of people. Most cases present as contact-based allergies, which means that the skin reacts in response to actually touching silicone or silicone-containing products. A red, raised rash that is limited to the silicone zone is usually the first sign that something is wrong. Swelling and intense itchiness is also common.
Eye and Airway Problems
People who suffer from this sort of allergy often have much more intense reactions when the substance actually enters their bodies, either as a result of an intentional cosmetic injection or a leak or break in a sealed implant. Medications that include silicone either as an ingredient or a stabilizer can also be to blame. When the allergen hits a person’s bloodstream it can cause watery eyes, blurred vision, dizziness, and nausea. In particularly severe cases the airway can also constrict and the lungs can grow inflamed, making breathing difficult. Localized swelling often still happens in these cases, but it usually happens in conjunction with these more serious consequences, which can make it harder to notice right away.
If silicone allergies are rare, truly life-threatening reactions are rarer still — but they happen. Anaphylaxis, also known as anaphylactic shock, is a medical emergency where the allergen triggers a histamine response in the body that results in sudden hives and swelling of the throat. This is different from a simple airway swelling since, if untreated, it can actually cut off a person’s oxygen and has been known to lead to a somewhat rapid death. Most people with a known allergy of this magnitude carry an epinephrine injection device that can buy them time until they can get to a hospital for treatment with adrenaline and supportive care.
Anxiety and Claustrophobia
Silicone is used in continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) masks worn by obstructive sleep apnea patients, and if one of these patients has an allergy to the substance he or she may experience anxiety and claustrophobia. In most cases these symptoms aren’t strictly related to the allergy — most of the time, patients are predisposed for them from the outset — but the allergy often makes the condition much more pronounced, to the point where it can become debilitating.
Understanding the Different Types of Silicone
A big part of understanding an allergic reaction to silicone is understanding the many forms of the substance. Silicone has many uses both household and commercial. It is usually the case that medical grade silicone is free of allergens, and most people with reactions have come into contact with commercial products that aren’t subject to the same regulations and purity standards.
Medical grade silicone is an inert substance composed of polymers that are generally safe to use around living tissue. This sort of material is used in catheters, baby bottle nipples, and facial implants among other things. Use of these items is not known to trigger an allergic reaction, but there may be additives or other ingredients that can do so.
Some of the most popularly known medical silicone is used in cosmetic implants. Most of the time implants are encapsulated in a tough shell from which the substance can’t escape. Liquid silicone is not approved for cosmetic use in many countries, including the United States, since it often triggers an inflammatory response. When used in large quantities, it sometimes migrates from the injection site and can cause granulomas, or lumpy inflamed tissue, and possibly even embolisms. Pain is often the first symptom of an allergic reaction to this kind of injection.
Industrial silicone used in household products and common accessories is not as pure or subject to as much testing as medical grade silicone, so there is a higher chance contaminants may be present. Contaminants don’t always make allergies more likely, but they can aggravate preexisting conditions. People can encounter the chemical in a range of settings. Many cleaners, some contact lenses, and a number of fashion elements incorporate this compound, and many rubber compounds include it as an ingredient, too.
Treatments and Diagnoses
The most common way to test for a silicone allergy is with a skin patch test. This usually involves exposing a small region of skin, normally on the inner arm, to diluted pure silicon. Patients are usually kept for observation to see what sort of reaction, if any, happens. People who test positive are usually advised to either avoid silicone or take precautions to minimize their risk of flare-up or breakout.
In medical settings, fixing the problem may be as simple as outfitting devices like CPAP with barriers that keep the offending parts off the skin. Hydrocortisone creams and oral antihistamines can often help calm the irritated area, too. In the case of liquid silicone, it’s often the case that removal of the affected tissue is the only way to help alleviate the inflammatory response.