Piercings: How to prevent complications

Piercings may be more common than ever, but don’t take piercing lightly. Know the risks and understand basic safety precautions and aftercare steps.

From ears to lips to bellybuttons, piercings are popular and easy to get. Still, don’t let the ease of getting piercings stop you from doing your research. Piercings carry risks and can cause complications. The decisions you make now – such as where you get the piercing and how you care for the piercing – can help you prevent infection and speed the healing process.

Piercings: How to prevent complications
Know the risks

A piercing is the insertion of jewelry into an opening made in the ear, nose, eyebrow, lip, tongue or other part of the body – usually without anesthetics. Although earlobe piercing is generally less risky than other body piercings, any type of piercing poses a risk of infection and other complications. Specific risks include:

  • Allergic reactions. Some piercing jewelry – particularly pieces made of nickel – can cause allergic reactions.
  • Oral complications. Jewelry worn in tongue piercings can chip and crack your teeth and damage your gums. Tongue swelling after a new piercing can block your throat and airway.
  • Skin infections. A skin infection – characterized by redness, swelling, pain and a pus-like discharge – is possible within a few days to weeks after a piercing.
  • Other skin problems. Body piercing can lead to scars and keloids – raised areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue.
  • Bloodborne diseases. If the equipment used to do the piercing is contaminated with infected blood, you can contract various bloodborne diseases, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tetanus and HIV – the virus that causes AIDS.
  • Tearing or trauma. Jewelry can get caught and torn out accidentally. Such trauma may require stitches or surgical repair.

Medication or other treatment may be needed if you develop an allergic reaction, infection or other skin problem. In some cases, the piercing may need to be removed.

Insist on safety precautions

To make sure your piercing will be done safely, answer these questions:

  • Who does the piercings? Go to a reputable piercing studio that employs only properly trained employees. Keep in mind that regulation requirements and licensing standards vary from state to state. Check with your city, county or state health department for information on local licensing and regulations.
  • Does the piercer wear gloves? Make sure the piercer washes his or her hands and wears a fresh pair of protective gloves for each piercing.
  • Does the piercer use proper equipment? For earlobe piercing, piercers often use an ear-piercing gun to quickly push an earring through the earlobe. For other body piercings, piercers typically push a needle through a body part and then insert a piece of jewelry into the hole. Make sure the piercer uses only fresh, sterile needles.
  • Does the piercer sterilize nondisposable equipment? Make sure the piercer uses a heat sterilization machine (autoclave) to sterilize all nondisposable equipment after each piercing. Instruments and supplies that can’t be sterilized with an autoclave – including drawer handles, tables and sinks – should be disinfected with a commercial disinfectant or bleach solution after each use.
  • Does the piercer use hypoallergenic jewelry? Look for surgical-grade steel, titanium, niobium, or 14- or 18-karat gold.

Take good care of your piercing
The skin around a new piercing may be slightly swollen, red and tender for a few days. The site may even bleed slightly. As the piercing heals, white or yellow fluid may drain and form a slight crust on the jewelry. To prevent infection and to encourage healing, take good care of your piercing:

  • Clean oral piercings with mouthwash. If you pierced your tongue, lip or cheek, rinse with an antibacterial, alcohol-free mouth rinse or a packaged sterile saline solution for 30 to 60 seconds after each meal and before you go to bed. Brush your teeth with a new, soft-bristled toothbrush to avoid introducing bacteria into your mouth.
  • Clean skin piercings with antibacterial soap. If you pierced your skin, clean the site with antibacterial soap once or twice a day. Be sure to wash your hands before cleaning your piercing. Remove any crusting with a cotton swab. Avoid alcohol and peroxide, which can dry the skin. Also avoid ointments, which keep oxygen from reaching the piercing.
  • Don’t fiddle with your piercings. Don’t touch a new piercing or twist the jewelry unless you’re cleaning it. Keep clothing away from the piercing, too. Excessive rubbing or friction can irritate your skin and delay healing.
  • Keep the jewelry in place. Most piercings heal within about six weeks, but some types may take several months or longer to heal. If you want to maintain the piercing, leave the jewelry in place during this time to keep the hole from closing. After the piercing heals, you may see an indentation, hole or scarred tissue when you remove the jewelry.

If you think your piercing may be infected or you’re concerned that your piercing isn’t healing properly, contact your doctor. Prompt treatment can help prevent potentially serious complications.

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