Last year, I walked into a body piercing shop in Culver City, Calif., and made a decision: I wanted a cute body alteration. I was tired of staring at other people’s body décor, wishing I had the courage to join the club.
So, after considering the idea for nearly a month, I finally decided to get my nose pierced.
I envisioned getting the smallest nose stud ever, one that would be nearly undetectable. However, I was shocked to learn that I needed to wait six weeks before I could change the not-so-cute/not-so-undetectable starter stud to one that I preferred.
Nearly two months later, I purchased and began wearing the nose stud of my dreams. It was small and as appealing as I imagined it would be, but soon after, a problem arose. No matter how often I cleaned the site of my piercing, it was red. It crossed my mind that perhaps the piercing hadn’t healed properly.
Months of pain and redness later, my problem was solved, thanks to a chance encounter with Matthew Baker, APRN, FNP-C, an advanced practice registered nurse at UT Health Services, part of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Nursing.
Baker noticed my infamous red right nostril and asked how long my nose had been pierced. After I gave him details and explained that the redness was a recurring issue, he suggested that I purchase a new, stainless steel nose ring because I was likely allergic to nickel. I did just that, and the redness is now a thing of the past.
Dangers that exist
My situation is not a rare one; people are often allergic to jewelry that contains nickel.
The most common jewelry placed into a new piercing contains nickel. Baker says an allergic reaction to nickel might present with a rash or bumps on the skin at or near the piercing site; itching; redness or changes in skin color; dry patches that may resemble a burn; or, in severe cases, blisters and draining fluid.
These days, ears and noses aren’t the only parts of the body being pierced. Belly buttons, tongues, necks and genitals — just about any body part you can imagine — can be adorned with jewelry. Although body piercings are popular, they come with several associated risks, including infection, allergic reaction and scarring.
Taking necessary precautions and ensuring sanitary and stringent aftercare can help prevent serious problems, but does not guarantee that problems won’t occur. “Most non-cultural piercings are by nature unhealthy, however the body is an amazing vehicle with adaptive abilities to overcome or tolerate our misdeeds,” says Cleverick D. Johnson, DDS.
Johnson leads the Urgent Care Clinic at UTHealth School of Dentistry and has seen several cases of infected piercings. He says patients who choose to get oral piercings have a risk of infection. “The most significant infections I’ve seen were hepatitis B and C,” he says. “The most common adverse reactions are swelling and bacterial infections.”
In addition to infections, Johnson says oral piercings can cause gingival (gum) recession and other dental issues. Piercings in the lip can damage gums by constantly rubbing against the surface. He also warns that some tongue piercings can cause damage to teeth.
Is it worth the risk?
Unfortunately, the new stainless steel stud I purchased isn’t as small (or cute) as I’d like, but it will suffice for the time being. I don’t plan on changing it unless I find a nose ring that is certain not to cause another allergic reaction. After all, part of my face is at stake here.
With my piercing, I’ve learned a valuable lesson. Whether you want a body piercing for self-expression, cultural beliefs, or simply because you want something “cute,” it is important to consider the associated risks.
In addition to jewelry, all piercings come with the risk of infection. Baker says body piercings in some areas, including lips, tongue, belly button and genital areas, have had increased rates of infection and are essentially more risky than others.
When piercing areas that are inherently covered with more bacteria, such as the tongue, those micro-organisms can enter the bloodstream and underlying tissues to cause serious infection. Since the symptoms of infection are comparable to the aftereffects of the piercing, patients are not always immediately aware of problems.
Johnson believes that a person’s actions should be measured by potential risks and benefits. “If the potential adverse risk far exceeds the benefits for strictly cosmetic procedures, they should be avoided,” he says.
Thinking about getting a body piercing? Make sure you get one from a professional. To minimize infection risk, the American Academy of Dermatology also suggests looking for the following when you arrive at the body piercing establishment:
- An autoclave. An autoclave, or heat sterilization machine, should be used to sterilize all non-disposable equipment after each customer.
- Fresh equipment. An unused, sterile needle should be used for all piercings.
- Gloves. The piercer must wash his or her hands and put on a fresh pair of surgical gloves for each procedure. The piercer should change those gloves if he or she needs to touch anything else, such as the telephone, during the procedure.
- No piercing gun. Don't receive a piercing from a piercing gun unless the part of the gun that touches the skin is sterile and has never been used before. Many of these devices cannot be autoclaved, which may increase your risk of infection.
- Appropriate hypoallergenic jewelry. Metal jewelry containing nickel, cobalt or white gold often can cause allergic reactions. Look for surgical-grade stainless steel, titanium, 14- or 18-karat yellow gold, or a metal called niobium.
In addition to issues such as common infection at the site, allergic reactions or scarring, some more serious problems or diseases can arise as a result of faulty or unsanitary body piercings:
- Hepatitis B and C
- Blood infections (sepsis)
- Nerve or blood vessel damage
- Sexual dysfunction or exposure to sexually transmitted diseases (from genital piercings)
This article, which has been updated, originally appeared on HealthLEADER, an online wellness magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Visit HealthLEADER for more articles on a broad array of health and wellness topics.