Body Piercing and Your Health

Body Piercing

Body piercings have become quite popular in the United States. Despite the potential of this practice to transmit blood-borne disease, safe, applicable regulations and licensing standards are emerging slowly. Since 1995, when almost no such regulations were in place, 38 states (Wyoming is not one of them) have instituted or updated legislation—but no consistent nationwide standards exist. Often, requirements are restricted to proof of identification and age and/or written parental permission for minors. Regulation has been recommended to require professional piercers to undergo infection control training.

Piercing Risks

Research findings indicate that body piercing is done for purposes of identity and self-expression rather than “deviancy or rebellion.” Most people have problem-free piercing. However, local infection and bleeding are reported in 9% to 30% of piercings, metal hypersensitivity can be of concern, and body piercing may be a risk factor for viral hepatitis.

Sterilized Equipment

The type of piercing equipment used may also affect the outcome. An individually packaged and autoclaved (sterilized) needle and jewelry is highly preferable to the plastic piercing guns often used at retail outlets; these devices cannot be sterilized to reduce risk of transmitting blood-borne infections.

Sensibility to Materials

Preferred metals for initial piercings include surgical implant-grade stainless steel or titanium, 14K or 18K gold, platinum, and niobium – all of which are generally available in piercing establishments, but not necessarily in retail piercing outlets in shopping malls. Other materials used include dense low-porosity plastic, wood, bone, and glass. Some popular cosmetic decorative pieces have a high content of nickel or brass, which can trigger hypersensitivity. A jewelry change may resolve the irritation.

Initial Piercing Problems

Jewelry of incorrect length or size can also create problems. Wires of too fine a gauge, when subjected to tension, can cut the skin like a cheese slicer. A stud of inadequate length can exert pressure on the surrounding tissue, reducing circulation and exposure to air. Tongue piercings are usually initiated with a longer temporary barbell to accommodate swelling, but it is important to replace this with a shorter permanent barbell to protect the teeth. In a navel piercing, a barbell that is too long protrudes from the piercing and can cause traction on the piercing site and clothing. Correcting the length of the jewelry may be the solution to a problem piercing. Jewelry with exposed threads may cause more damage than internally threaded jewelry and is not recommended for initial piercings.

Piercings in the Mouth

In persons with piercings in the mouth, common initial complaints include pain, swelling, increased salivation, and infection (as has been reported, along with concerns about trauma, in persons who engage in contact sports with oral piercings and mouth guards in place.) Subsequent concerns may include interference with speaking and chewing, formation of scar tissue, and aspirated or ingested jewelry. Damage to the dental enamel and gingival have been reported, particularly when jewelry is retained for five years or longer.

Professional Piercing

The Association of Professional Piercers advocates “being pierced in a hygienically safe environment and by a professional piercer.” Professional business members of the APP have had at least one year’s experience of full-time piercing and meet specific personal and environmental criteria. A reliable establishment should be scrupulously clean and must have an autoclave for sterilization of jewelry, single use disposable piercing needles, and reusable trays, forceps, and other tools. The piercer should follow appropriate infection control practices (including hand washing, use of gloves, and disinfection of skin and working surfaces).

Piercing Aftercare

Recommended aftercare includes washing twice daily with saline or antibacterial soap and water (not with alcohol, peroxide, or iodine, which may be drying. Water soluble antibiotic gels or creams should be used, if at all, in small amounts and only for the first week unless infection is present; antibiotic ointment may limit oxygen circulation and slow healing, and it has a potential for causing hypersensitivity and adverse effects. Unhealed piercings should not be exposed to other persons’ body fluids or submerged in any body of water (including pools and Jacuzzis) that may harbor bacteria. Persons should be advised not to wear tight clothing over piercings until after the piercing is healed.