Body piercing is when a hole is made in your skin or through a part of your body so you can add a piece of jewelry for decoration. The earlobe is the most common body piercing. Other common places to pierce include the eyebrow, nose, tongue, lip, belly button, nipples, and genitals. Some people also pierce their ear cartilage (the hard part of the outer ear).
Path to improved health
Piercing should always be done in a clean environment using sterile (clean and germ-free) equipment. This is the best way to lower your risk of infection.
How is piercing performed?
A single-use, sterilized piercing gun is typically used to insert an earring into the earlobe. A hollow needle is used to pierce a hole in the skin in other parts of the body. The person doing the piercing will insert a piece of jewelry into the hole.
The safest piercing guns are single-use guns. It means that it is only used on one customer and then thrown away. This decreases the risk of infection. Piercing guns with sterilized disposable cassettes are also considered acceptable. But these don’t promise the same level of sterilizing that single-use piercing guns do.
Do not receive a piercing from a reusable piercing gun that does not have sterilized disposable cassettes. These types of piercing guns cannot be autoclaved. An autoclave is a type of sterilization machine that uses heat to sterilize all non-disposable piercing tools. It helps make sure that all tools are clean before they touch your body. It is an important piece of equipment in a clean piercing shop. Not being able to autoclave a piercing gun increases the risk of infection.
Also, do not have a piercing performed with a piercing gun on any part of your body except your ear. Doing so can crush the skin and cause more injury than a piercing performed with a hollow needle.
Who should perform my body piercing?
If you are going to have a piercing done, do some research. Make sure you find a clean, safe piercing shop. Choose a professional with a good reputation to perform the piercing.
Do not pierce yourself or let anyone pierce you who is not a professional. Select the body site and jewelry carefully. Avoid jewelry made of nickel or brass. These metals can cause allergic reactions. Look for jewelry made of titanium, 14-carat gold, or surgical-grade steel.
The person doing the piercing should:
- Wash his or her hands with a germicidal soap before doing the piercing.
- Wear disposable gloves.
- Use disposable or sterilized tools.
- Use a new needle to do the piercing.
Things to consider
Health risks from body piercing include:
- allergic reactions
- keloids (a type of scar that forms as your skin heals)
Infection is the most common problem associated with piercing. Many people have a hard time recognizing if their piercing is infected. They confuse the infection with a piercing that is “just healing.”
Call your family doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms of infection:
- red, swollen skin around the pierced area
- pain when touching the pierced area
- a yellowish, foul-smelling discharge coming from the piercing.
What increases my risk of problems from body piercing?
Many things can affect your body’s immune system and your ability to fight infection. Be sure to tell the person piercing you if you have diabetes, heart problems, a weakened immune system, or any other medical conditions. If you take steroids or blood thinners, talk to your doctor before you get a piercing.
How can I prevent an infection?
Make sure you take care of your piercing. The person performing your piercing will recommend cleaning the area with warm water and soap twice a day. You will also be instructed to use a liquid medicated cleanser while gently moving the piercing around. For a tongue or lip piercing, you will need to use an antibacterial mouth rinse after meals to prevent infection.
When to see a doctor
It is very important to see your family doctor if you think you might have an infection. Delaying treatment can result in a more serious infection. Be sure to leave your jewelry in unless your doctor tells you to take it out. Leaving the jewelry in can ensure proper drainage. It will also prevent an abscess (a collection of pus) from forming. Most times, the infection can be treated without losing the piercing.
Minor infections may be treated with the following:
- Over-the-counter medicines that you rub on your skin, such as an antibiotic ointment.
- A warm compress applied to the irritated piercing.
- Mild sea salt soaks.
Questions for your doctor
- Could I have been exposed to a disease while being pierced?
- Am I allergic to the metal in my piercing?
- Will my piercing leave a scar if I take it out?
- What is a keloid?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.