Body Piercing Can Be Life-Threatening

Emergency medical technicians recently wheeled a 19-year-old woman who had stopped breathing from an overdose of a “date-rape drug” into a Salt Lake City hospital.

Doctors at LDS Hospital tried to put a breathing tube down her throat, but their path was blocked by three 1-inch-long metal stud barbells running along the length of her tongue.

“One doctor got to the point where he said, ‘If you have to rip her tongue, just do it,’” says Dr. Shari Welch, one of the doctors on the case.

“Eventually we got the tongue out of the way, but her body piercing could have cost her her life,” Welch says.

Infections and Removal Problems

These days, increasing numbers of people, from mainstream baby boomers to rebellious teenagers, are piercing their bodies in stranger and stranger places — tongues, navels, even their genitals. As a result, doctors are starting to see more of body piercing’s dark side: Infections from dirty puncture wounds now happen in one out of every five piercings. The jewelry is tearing the skin. And studs and baubles in unusual places can hinder doctors from administering emergency care.

Body-art lovers defend their freedom of expression, saying it’s the doctors who should learn how to remove the jewelry in life-threatening conditions. The majority of people, they point out, know how to take care of themselves with disinfectants and cleaning once they’ve been pierced.

Currently, 37 of the 50 states have legislation regulating the body-piercing industry, and piercing professionals believe the rest should follow suit.

Making a Statement

“Body piercing has been around since ancient times and isn’t going to go away,” says Pat McCarthy, president of the Association of Professional Piercers in Columbus, Ohio.

Piercing is fashionable because it allows people to be different, McCarthy says.

“We wear shoes and clothing to make a statement. Piercing does the same thing,” McCarthy says. “Unlike tattooing, it isn’t permanent, and someone always has the option of taking the jewelry out.”

Regardless of the professionalism of some piercing shops, other stores are marginal and people do not always take care of themselves properly after the procedure, doctors say. The majority of piercings will close up if the jewelry is removed and not replaced, but doctors say cosmetic consequences, such as skin dimpling, can remain.

In her survey of the medical literature, Welch found a 22 percent infection rate for body piercing overall and a 34 percent infection rate for cartilage piercing.

Susceptible Areas

Cartilage in the outer ear and the nose is susceptible to infection because the tissue does not have an adequate blood supply to bring immune cells from the body to help fight off infections, explains Dr. Joseph Adrian Tyndall, program director of emergency medicine residency at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York.

The tissue on the ear can die as a result of an infection, leaving an ugly scar, Tyndall says.

Dr. William Mallon, director of the emergency residency program at Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Hospital, says his doctors see an adverse reaction to piercing at least once a week. These include allergic reactions to the metals used and infections, especially in hairy areas. Oozing pus from bellybutton piercings is quite common, Mallon says.

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