When Body Piercings Can Pose Major Health Risks

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Those tiny little piercings can trigger big consequences that include allergic reactions, infection and hepatitis, according to a new research review by Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. The American Journal of Clinical Dermatology published their report this month.

Dr. Anne Laumann, professor of dermatology, and Dr. Jaimee Holbrook, a clinical research fellow, talk about staying safe and smart when it comes to self-expression.Piercing can remain a safe means of self-expression when people do their research and think about potential pitfalls, accoridng to Northwestern University researchers Drs. Anne Laumann (L) and Jaimee Holbrook. (Lauren Hise/Medill)Piercing can remain a safe means of self-expression when people do their research and think about potential pitfalls, accoridng to Northwestern University researchers Drs. Anne Laumann (L) and Jaimee Holbrook. (Lauren Hise/Medill)

What are some of the major problems documented with piercings?
(JH) In general, piercing, if it’s done by a professional, is relatively safe. Just some general side effects are swelling, pain, slow healing times, bleeding. People can get infections. Infections are pretty common. Some reports [surveyed] have 20 percent of patients reporting infections. Now, keep in mind, these infections are minor and usually localized. In that case, maybe you’ll see a little crusting around the piercing site, some erythema or redness. However, there are reports of infections that have spread to the whole body, distal infections, severe infections. There are reports of hepatitis from not having the proper sanitation conditions. They’re getting it from the act of piercing with dirty needles.

Where do you recommend people go to get a piercing?
(JH) The purpose of our paper was not to, in any way, discredit professional piercers. Most people go to a piercing parlor to get pierced by piercers who are professional, who have been adequately trained, who understand hygiene. We’re in no way saying that they’re the wrong people to go to. Now having your piercing done in someone’s home by an untrained piercer who’s not aware of what they are supposed to be doing, that’s really the problem.

Is there anywhere on the body that just shouldn’t be pierced? Did you find any areas that were more prone to infections than others?
(JH) The infections can occur anywhere. There are multiple infections reported at pretty much every site of the body.

What are some really early signs of infections? When should people seek help?
(JH) Slow healing times, redness around the area, pain, some kind of discharge.

(AL) I suppose if it last more than two or three days, fairly quickly. The irritation could be from different reasons but you don’t want to get redness inflamed into the cartilage, then that whole area can collapse.

Do you think that people sometimes get piercings even when their bodies are telling them no from previous experience?
(JH) In my experience, I do think people get piercings that aren’t necessarily right for them. In being a professional piercer, you should tell the people if you notice they don’t have the right anatomy for the piercing that they want or if they come in telling you that they’ve had problems with piercings before. Someone who is a professional should really sit them down and talk to them about whether it is the right thing for them to do. Problems that people have are not having the right anatomy. Maybe they have an allergy to nickel. If a piercer is aware of that, they can make sure that materials are used that don’t contain nickel.

How can people take responsibility?
(AL) Individuals getting pierced should think about it. Are you a keloid [scar] former? Do you have congenital heart disease? Are you on medications that could interfere with it?

Why do you think people are getting more and more creative with their piercings?
(JH) It’s hard to know. Piercing has been around forever. I mean, tongue piercing dates back to the Mayans. People have been piercing pretty much every body part for as long as we know. It has become more popular in Western Civilization. It’s kind of moved from being strictly tribal religious to body art. I think people like the idea of being able to express themselves in different ways.

How do you impress upon people that this little thing could have huge consequences?
(AL) I don’t know that I’m very successful at it, but I guess you just have to tell them. After all many people have safe piercings. The big problem is if you do get an infection. There should be after-care instructions.

What’s the most important thing when getting a piercing or a tattoo?
(JH) With tattoos and piercings you definitely want to know where you are going. Go to a reputable place. Talk to your piercer. Do they sound like they know what they’re talking about? Do they have referrals? Look around the situation. Does it look like the stuff they’re using is sterile equipment? Is it a sanitary environment? Talk to them and find out. Make sure they give you after-care instructions, oral and written instructions that tell you how to care for your piercing but also what signs to watch for. And, what do you do if you see those sign? I feel like a lot of times people will get piercings and then show up in the emergency room with complications, and perhaps those could have been avoided if they’d known what to look for or caught it early and been able to take care of it.

What other advice do you give?
(JH) Consider the body site. Make sure that the piercing you want is an appropriate type for that body part. Make sure you use quality jewelry. It’s worth paying the extra money for jewelry that’s nickel-free [a common allergy], to have jewelry that’s the appropriate gauge, so you’re minimizing risk of it tearing out or migrating. Also just be aware of the social impact of your piercing. If you’re going to be removing your piercing for sports or work, sometimes just the act of putting the piercing in and out repetitively can increase the risk of complications.

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