What Is a Body Piercing and What Can You Expect?
A body piercing is exactly that — a piercing or puncture made in your body by a needle. After that, a piece of jewelry is inserted into the puncture. The most popular pierced body parts seem to be the ears, the nostrils, and the belly button.
If the person performing the piercing provides a safe, clean, and professional environment, this is what you should expect from getting a body part pierced:
- The area you've chosen to be pierced (except for the tongue) is cleaned with a germicidal soap (a soap that kills disease-causing bacteria and microorganisms).
- Your skin is then punctured with a very sharp, clean needle.
- The piece of jewelry, which has already been sterilized, is attached to the area.
- The person performing the piercing disposes of the needle in a special container so that there is no risk of the needle or blood touching someone else.
- The pierced area is cleaned.
- The person performing the piercing checks and adjusts the jewelry.
- The person performing the piercing gives you instructions on how to make sure your new piercing heals correctly and what to do if there is a problem.
Before You Pierce That Part
If you're thinking about getting pierced, do your research first. If you're under 18, some places won't allow you to get a piercing without a parent's consent. It's a good idea to find out what risks are involved and how best to protect yourself from infections and other complications.
Certain sites on the body can cause more problems than others — infection is a common complication of mouth and nose piercings because of the millions of bacteria that live in those areas. Tongue piercings can damage teeth over time. And tongue, cheek, and lip piercings can cause gum problems.
Studies have shown that people with certain types of heart disease might have a higher risk of developing a heart infection after body piercing. If you have a medical problem such as allergies, diabetes, skin disorders, a condition that affects your immune system, or infections — or if you are pregnant — ask your doctor if there are any special concerns you should have or precautions you should take beforehand. Also, it's not a good idea to get a body piercing if you're prone to getting keloids (an overgrowth of scar tissue in the area of the wound).
If you decide to get a body piercing:
- Make sure you're up to date with your immunizations (especially hepatitis B and tetanus).
- Plan where you will get medical care if your piercing becomes infected (signs of infection include excessive redness/tenderness around the piercing site, prolonged bleeding, pus, and change in your skin color around the piercing area).
Also, if you plan to get a tongue or mouth piercing, make sure your teeth and gums are healthy.
Making Sure the Piercing Shop Is Safe and Sanitary
Body piercing is regulated in some states but not others. Although most piercing shops try to provide a clean and healthy environment, some might not take proper precautions against infections or other health hazards.
If you decide to get a body piercing, do a little investigative work about a shop's procedures and find out whether it provides a clean and safe environment for its customers. Every shop should have an autoclave (a sterilizing machine) and should keep instruments in sealed packets until they are used. Ask questions and make sure:
- the shop is clean
- the person doing the piercing washes his or her hands with a germicidal soap
- the person doing the piercing wears fresh disposable gloves (like those worn at a doctor's office)
- the person doing the piercing uses sterilized instruments or instruments that are thrown away after use
- the person doing the piercing does not use a piercing gun (they're not sterile)
- the needle being used is new and is being used for the first time
- the needle is disposed of in a special sealed container after the piercing
- there are procedures for the proper handling and disposal of waste (like needles or gauze with blood on them)
It's also a good idea to ask about the types of jewelry the shop offers because some people have allergic reactions to certain types of metals. Before you get a piercing, make sure you know if you're allergic to any metals. Only nontoxic metals should be used for body piercings, such as:
- surgical steel
- solid 14-karat or 18-karat gold
If you think the shop isn't clean enough, if all your questions aren't answered, or if you feel in any way uncomfortable, go somewhere else to get your piercing.
Some Health Risks
If all goes well, you should be fine after a body piercing except for some temporary symptoms, including some pain, swelling at the pierced area, and in the case of a tongue piercing, increased saliva. But be aware that several things, including the following, can go wrong in some cases:
- chronic infection
- uncontrollable or prolonged bleeding
- hepatitis B and C
- skin allergies to the jewelry that's used
- abscesses or boils (collections of pus that can form under your skin at the site of the piercing)
- inflammation or nerve damage
Depending on the body part, healing times can take anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year. If you do get a piercing, make sure you take good care of it afterward — don't pick or tug at it, keep the area clean with soap (not alcohol), and don't touch it without washing your hands first. Never use hydrogen peroxide because it can break down newly formed tissue. If you have a mouth piercing, use an alcohol-free, antibacterial mouthwash after eating.
If you're thinking of donating blood, be aware that some organizations won't accept blood donations from anyone who has had a body piercing or tattoo within the last year because both procedures can transmit blood-borne diseases you may not realize were passed on to you at the time of the piercing.
If your piercing doesn't heal correctly or you feel something might be wrong, it's important to get medical attention. Most important, don't pierce yourself or have a friend do it — make sure it's done by a professional in a safe and clean environment.
Reviewed by: Michele Van Vranken, MD
Date reviewed: November 2008