Body Piercing Can Be Life-Threatening

Infections also occur due to bacteria in the saliva of partners licking or biting a piercing that is healing. “People who pierce nipples or genitalia can be anxious to have their partner start sucking or biting it without waiting for the skin to heal as the piercers will recommend,” says Mallon.

“What happens with these patients is that they will come into the ER with an infection in these areas and we give them an antibiotic to usually the streptococcus or staphylococcus bacteria [on skin.] But the antibiotics won’t help because they needed an antibiotic that could fight the [gram negative] bacteria found in the mouth.”

At that point, they usually need to be hospitalized, he says.

An 18-year-old woman who came to the emergency room at LDS Hospital 15 months ago died from overwhelming infection caused by bacteria in a tongue piercing in her own mouth, Welch says.

In another LDS case, a 19-year-old man who had had his penis pierced suffered from his body art when he was in a car accident. The stud extended through the tip of the penis and crossed over his urethra, the tube that allows urine to pass from the body. The trauma of the accident dislodged the stud and now the young man occasionally has to go to the hospital for assistance with a catheter to urinate.

John Marx, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., says the most dramatic piercing problem he has seen is ripped skin from the jewelry either catching on clothing or from a lover pulling off a nipple ring in a fight.

Proper Care Key, Say Piercers

Piercing proponents pooh-pooh what they call doctors’s scare tactics. Roland Guiran, 24, who works in Cutting Edge Graphics in New York’s Greenwich Village, says he has pierced his penis and his ears. He also “stretches” his ears to hold cylinders of three diameters: one a half-inch; another five-eighths of an inch, and the third three-quarters of an inch.

“I enjoy it and have not really had a problem with infection,” Guiran says. “If you take care of piercing, it will take care of you.”

Each of the pierced body parts requires a different type of care, he says, and the shop provides a list of instructions. For oral piercings, for instance, the piercing association recommends an alcohol-free antimicrobial mouth rinse, such as Tech 200 or Biotene. Alcohol is not recommended because it increases the possibility of bleeding. Topical antibiotic creams should not be used for skin piercing because they prevent oxygen from reaching the wound to help it heal.

The Association of Professional Piercers’ McCarthy says only certain materials should be used in piercing, including a titanium metal known as Ti6A14V ELI, a surgical steel known as 316 LVMF 138, 14-karat and 18-karat gold, and a low-porosity plastic called Tygon or PTFE. Sterling silver should be avoided because it oxidizes.

Piercers Reaching Out to Doctors

To help educate the medical professionals about body piercing, McCarthy will be releasing a video at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, being held in Boston in November. A study last year from the Journal of Accident and Emergency Medicine found that only six of 28 ER doctors questioned knew how to remove different types of jewelry common to body piercing. McCarthy also will be offering a workshop about whether piercing studios pose a health risk.

Although consumers often sign consent forms before they undergo piercings — usually so owners can protect themselves from liability — Welch says the stores are not telling them everything they need to know.

“There should be better credentialing of the people performing these procedures or perhaps paramedics or nurse practitioners actually doing them,” Welch says. “People would probably not be letting themselves get pierced if they really knew the extent of the potential problems.”

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