• Laura Chaparro, science journalist

    Beware of piercings!

    15 Feb


    Piercings are fashionable with young people. Nowadays, holes pierce the skin anywhere on the body—the mouth, ears, navel, nipples, genitals—because that’s what fashion dictates. But the medical statistics demonstrate that invading the body’s protective layer often leads to health complications.


    Currently, piercings are yet another element in the image we project. Whether as a sign of rebellion, to mark a difference or for aesthetic reasons, piercings are popular among young people in Western countries and are often combined with tattoos on the body. However, people are often not aware of certain short- to medium-term risks of piercing the skin.

    The longstanding tradition of the hole in the earlobe is now a feature of the tongue, lips, nose, eyebrows, nipples, navel, neck, hips, elbows and even male and female genitals. Young people have piercings almost anywhere on the body and all of them can cause complications.

    According to a survey of more than 10,500 people conducted by the Agency for Health Protection in the United Kingdom, of individuals with piercings in places other than the earlobe, 31% experienced complications, 15% required medical care and 1% had to be admitted to hospital. Below are the most common problems, categorised by areas of the body:


    The ear: The common practice of piercing the earlobe can cause mild infections, allergic contact dermatitis, the formation of keloids (excessive scar tissue growth) and tearing of the skin. However, when the hole is made in the cartilage of the ear, infections are likely to be more severe and there is a risk of perichondritis.


    The mouth area: The lips, tongue and even the cheeks are the most frequent locations for piercings around the mouth. According to a study by the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (Madrid), 72% of people with piercings in the mouth have suffered some kind of complication.

    Perforating the blood vessels of the tongue can cause bleeding and bruising. Other possible complications are damage to the gums, lesions in the salivary glands, loss of taste, pain, numbness, slurred speech, increased salivary flow and even loss of control over saliva. Piercings also frequently affect the teeth, chipping them and causing small gaps between them.

    Furthermore, if a person with a tongue piercing has to be intubated via the windpipe, there is a risk of the piercing being swallowed by the patient.


    The nose: A piercing through the nasal septum can cause bleeding and bruising, often accompanied by infection. It can also cause perichondritis and necrosis of the nasal wall.


    The navel: Friction by clothing prevents rapid healing and increases the risk of infection. These holes also tend to expand gradually, especially in overweight people and pregnant women.


    The nipples: Both men and women pierce the nipple or the areola. Possible complications are the formation of abscesses (collections of pus) and infections. Even if the piercing is removed in breast-feeding women, the scar may affect milk ducts.


    The genitals: One of the goals of piercings in the genital area is to enhance sexual sensitivity. However, the risks of complications are high for both men and women.

    In men, genital piercings often perforate the glans, urethra, foreskin and scrotum. Piercings inserted through the glans can block urine flow, whereas perforations of the urethra and glans are associated with paraphimosis. Piercings can also cause engorgement and priapism (persistent erection).

    Women often pierce the clitoris, labia minora, labia majora and perineum. After perforation, they may experience bleeding, infections, allergic reactions, keloid formation and scarring. An additional problem is in the use of barrier methods of contraception, given that condoms may break.


    To pierce or not to pierce?
    In addition to these specific problems, any body piercing implies the risk of serious infections such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C or tetanus.

    In view of the outcomes, it seems clear that piercing is not advisable, neither for our skin nor for our health in general. But, fashions strongly influence the subconscious, especially in young people, so here are a few tips:


    - Be sure to be well informed before you get a piercing.
    - Insist on perforation with properly sterilized instruments.
    - Choose jewellery made of quality materials that are less likely to cause infections.
    - Regularly check piercings and get prompt medical attention for any complications.


    Source: American Family Physician