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What Are the Risks of Piercing?


Body piercings have been increasing in popularity, especially among teenagers. Most areas of the body can be pierced. Even when performed correctly, there are risks involved, some of which are serious.

What is a piercing?

Body piercing involves creating a hole in the body and placing jewelry in it. Earlobe piercing can be performed with a needle or gun, but other areas of the body should be pierced with a needle only.

What areas of the body can be pierced?

Most parts of the body can be pierced, but the most common areas are:

  • Earlobes
  • Ear cartilage
  • Nose
  • Eyebrow
  • Lips
  • Cheek
  • Tongue
  • Navel
  • Nipples
  • Genitals

What are the risks of piercing?

About one-third of piercings result in some form of complication. Some piercing risks are specific to the area, and others can occur anywhere on the body.

Infection is the number one complication of body piercings. Some areas of the body are more susceptible, such as the navel. Bacteria are the most common pathogens, such as Staphylococcus. Bacterial infections usually present as redness, swelling, and pus around the piercing. The good news is that these can be treated with oral and topical antibiotics, and most times, you can keep your piercing. But viruses, like HIV or hepatitis B or C can occur as well, and they have no cure, require life-long treatment, and can be deadly. Infections result from contaminated piercing instruments or improper post-op wound care.

The most common allergen is nickel, the main component in most cheap costume jewelry. It is vital to select jewelry made of surgical stainless steel, titanium, or platinum. Even gold can cause problems in some people.

Excessive bleeding can occur if the patient has a bleeding disorder or is taking blood thinners. Blood thinners include prescrption medications, such as coumadin or Plavix. Over-the-counter medications that can cause bleeding are aspirin and NSAIDs (ibuprofen). Some vitamins and supplements can cause excess bleeding, such as vitamin E, garlic, ginseng, ginkgo, fish oil, and omega-3s.

Abscesses result from untreated infections that create a deep pocket of pus under the skin.

Sepsis occurs when an infection reaches the bloodstream and spreads throughout the body. If not caught and treated early, it can lead to death.

Nerve damage can lead to numbness or loss of motor function. These are more common on eyelids, lips, and tongues. For example, nerve damage to the eyelids can result in an inability to move the eyelids.

Pain is dictated by where the piercing is on the body. Piercings on the genitals, nipples, and tongue are painful, especially if they are constantly irritated.

Piercings inside the mouth can lead to dental trauma, such as chips or cracks in your teeth and damage your gums.

Scarring occurs any time you cut or puncture the skin. Some people are more prone to severe scarring, like keloids. Keloids are large bumpy scars that can cause pain and irritation, necessitating medical treatment.

Trouble breathing, swallowing, eating, or speaking can occur due to piercings in and around the mouth.

Some piercings are more prone to tearing because of their location. Navel piercings, genital piercings, and ear piercings can get in the way of clothing and are torn out.

Genital piercings may cause problems with urinating or having sex. They can cause damage to the person who has the piercing as well as the partner during sex.

If the piercings are too large, they can pull on the skin and stretch it. This is especially common with ear piercings.

Sometimes the skin grows over the piercing and becomes embedded in the skin. This will require surgical excision to remove the piercing.

Nipple piercings can cause damage to the nipple and breast, leading to problems with breastfeeding.

Piercings can lead to condom breakage, which exposes both participants to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy. Many STIs can be fatal.

Some people are more prone to complications from piercings and should avoid them.

Patients with diabetes heal slowly and are more prone to scarring and infections.

Patients who are immunosuppressed due to transplants, cancer, medications (prednisone), or HIV are more at risk for infections. The infections are more severe and deadly since their immune system is not working optimally.

People who have bleeding disorders should not have any piercings. The trauma to the skin from a piercing will cause bleeding. Excessive, uncontrolled bleeding could have grave consequences.

The same applies to patients who take blood thinning medications (coumadin, Plavix). They should not have piercings. Excessive bleeding can occur from these medications with even minor trauma.

Patients who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not have piercings. If you get an infection, you risk harm to the baby. Also, piercings in the nipples, navel, or genitals are not recommended during pregnancy because you risk tearing off the piercings.

Some patients are prone to keloids based on genetics. If you get keloids, do not get a piercing.

How can I prevent complications from piercing?

There are several questions to ask and things to look for when getting a piercing.

  • Washing hands – The person performing your piercing must wash his hands before the procedure. Also, wash your hands before taking care of your piercing. These will reduce your risk for infection.
  • Gloves – Watch the person performing your piercing to ensure they put on new sterile gloves before the procedure.
  • Sterile single-use kits – Ask the piercing shop if they use single-use kits or an autoclave to sterilize instruments. Otherwise, find another shop.
  • Jewelry – Inquire if the jewelry is sterile. You do not want jewelry that was opened or is not sterile. Also, the person doing the piercing must use stainless steel, platinum, or titanium to lower the risk of allergic reactions.
  • Licensed – You can check to ensure the piercing shop is licensed and has not had health violations before you go.
  • Follow post-op instructions – Follow your post-op instructions to avoid complications. If they do not go over your post-op instructions with you and give you a copy, find another piercing shop.

Post-op instructions should include the following:

  • Wash your hands before you clean the piercing.
  • Clean the piercing every day with antibacterial products. They will recommend a special mouthwash for a mouth piercing.
  • Keep your hands off the piercing, and do not play with it.
  • Avoid trauma to the piercing.
  • Keep the jewelry in for as long as they recommend.
  • Do not go swimming (pools, oceans, lakes, hot tubs, and rivers) until the piercing is healed to avoid infection.

If you are still unsure, ask your doctor for advice on getting a piercing or help to find a piercing shop. Some doctors perform piercings in their offices.

Conclusion

Piercings have become more popular in recent years. Many are not getting traditional ear piercings but more exotic body piercings. There are many risks involved in getting piercings that you should seriously consider before embarking. Many of these complications can be deadly.

Key takeaways

Piercings have increased in popularity, with many requesting nontraditional locations on the body.

The most common locations include ears, nose, mouth, eyelids, lips, nipples, genitals, and navel.

There are many risks to piercings, some of which are serious and deadly. They include infection, allergic reactions, pain, nerve damage, bleeding, scarring, dental trauma, tearing, difficulty breastfeeding or urinating, and sexual dysfunction.

Some people should not have piercings, such as those with a bleeding problem, are immunosuppressed, diabetic, prone to keloids, pregnant, or breastfeeding.

If you decide to get a piercing, follow all the post-op instructions to prevent complications.

Resources:

Ranga, N., Jefferym A.J. (2011). Body piercing with fatal consequences. BMJ Case Rep.

Preslar, D., Borger, J. (2022). Body Piercing Infections. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.

Lee, B., Vangipuram, R., Petersen, E., Tyring, S.K. (2018). Complications associated with intimate body piercings. Dermatol Online J.

Holbrook, J., Minocha, J., Laumann, A. (2012). Body piercing: complications and prevention of health risks. Am J Clin Dermatol.

Meltzer, D.I. (2005). Complications of body piercing. Am Fam Physician.

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