Vol.2, No.4

Safety risks of body piercings

The risks associated with body piercing can be inconvenient, painful, and possibly life-threatening.

A navel piercing
Photo Credit: Kim Yarmuch
If you're considering a body piercing, know the risks, and how to prevent them.

Many of the risks associated with body piercing can be inconvenient and even painful, but some risks can be life-threatening. Here's how to protect your health when having a body piercing.

Common Body Piercing Risks

One of the most preventable body piercing risks is an allergic reaction to nickel or brass. This isn't likely to be a problem with your initial piercing because most body piercing studios only pierce with non-reactive surgical stainless steel, niobium, or titanium jewelry. Although there is a small amount of nickel in surgical stainless steel, it is generally not enough to cause a reaction. If you are allergic to nickel, brass, or any metal for that matter, your best bet may be to stick with non-reactive metals such as titanium to avoid the discomfort of allergic rash.

Perhaps the most common risk people think of when getting a body piercing is a bacterial infection. This is swelling, redness, and often pus around the sight of the new piercing. Infections should be treated immediately, usually with antibiotics, and there are rarely life-threatening side effects. Proper cleansing and aftercare in the days just after a piercing will decrease your chances of bacterial infection.

Infection in cartilage areas, such as the top of the ear, can be more difficult to treat because antibiotics are often ineffective. In some cases, the area will develop an abscess and must be drained by a medical professional. If you're having cartilage pierced, make sure you follow any piercing aftercare instructions carefully. Keep it clean to keep infection out.

More serious complications occur when proper sterilization isn't performed prior to piercing. Any blood-borne infection can be transmitted by equipment that hasn't been sterilized. Examples are hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV, and tetanus. Most people are familiar with the dangers of HIV, but both hepatitis B and C can develop into chronic conditions that can cause liver damage and/or failure. The importance of sterilization in a body piercing studio can't be over-stressed.

Get to Know Your Studio

So now that you know the worst that can happen, here's how you can keep it from happening to you.

First and foremost, it's important to know the safety procedures at the studio you plan to be pierced at. A quick visit and a few questions should tell you all you need to know about the studio and the piercers. By all means, if you aren't comfortable, move on. There are plenty of body piercing studios out there, and even if you need to travel a short distance to another one, your health and safety are worth it.

Take a look around the studio: does it look clean? Ask about their autoclave (often called a 'clave). This is the machine that sterilizes jewelry and equipment before it's used. They should have a current Spore Test that shows the 'clave was tested and is in good working order. These are usually done every month or so, so make sure they have a current one on file.

Does the studio use piercing guns? If so, you might want to reconsider. Piercing guns cannot be sterilized in a 'clave and most piercers do not use them for any reason. They can also smash and damage skin--ouch!

The piercer should open freshly sterilized equipment and jewelry--with gloved hands--just before use. And most will do this in your presence when they pierce you. When in doubt, ask.

You should be provided (and by all means read!) a set of written aftercare instructions. Read them before you get pierced. They will lay out how to keep your new piercing clean and healthy. Even if everything seems great after the first few days, keep up the aftercare! It can save you a lot of discomfort down the road.