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The Problems With Piercing : They are rare, but they do happen. We're talking about infections, even broken teeth. To cut the risk, get the job done by a pro.


As trends go, body piercing has hit it big. Nose and navel rings, tongue studs and ears laced with dangling wires no longer warrant a double take.

What does deserve a second look, however, are the related health risks and possible complications.

Serious side effects appear rare. But increasingly, plastic surgeons, dermatologists, dentists and even professional piercers are reporting "horror stories" of piercings that were poorly done or inappropriately cared for and led to complications, which include infections, scarring, embedded studs, broken teeth and speech impediments.

Body piercing, if done safely, is not harmful. The problem is that many consumers are getting pierced under unsafe conditions--such as by friends, at street fairs or in shops with poorly trained practitioners.

"Severe problems can happen if precautions aren't taken, no matter where you pierce your skin," says Dr. Joel Holloway, a Norman, Okla., dermatologist and expert on piercing.

Professional piercers--who are formally trained and adhere to standards set by the Assn. of Professional Piercers--are among those clamoring loudest for state regulations.

"We have approached [policy-makers] and begged them to regulate this," says Michaela Grey, director of the Gauntlet Inc. Piercing Training Seminars in San Francisco. "It's so popular that people want to make money doing it. But some aren't considering the health factors, and there is a real potential for problems."

For example, teeth can be broken from biting down on jewelry in or around the mouth, says Dr. Eric Z. Shapira, a dentist who has written about piercing for the Academy of General Dentistry. Moreover, speech impediments, excessive drooling, nerve damage and numbness, blood clots and even eating disorders can result.

"A stud can become impacted and have to be surgically removed," says Shapira, who practices in Half Moon Bay, Calif. "And you could have an airway obstruction if you aspirate [jewelry] and it goes into the lung. You can have malnutrition due to changes in eating habits. . . . You can damage your sense of taste. People don't think about these ramifications because they don't have the knowledge."

Infection and the development of keloids--large raised scars that may continue to grow--are the most common problems resulting from improper piercing, Holloway says.

Infections are usually minor and easily treated. But, Holloway notes, HIV and hepatitis could be spread by needles that are reused and not cleaned properly.


Janny, 16, of Anaheim, had her nose pierced with a tiny gold ring at a hair salon last June. The ring is gone now. The 11th-grader says she liked how it looked. But a month after the piercing, the skin around the ring became sore and red.

"I wanted to let it close rather than tell my mom that I think it was infected. She was mad at me for getting it, anyway," says Janny, who asked not to have her last name published.

Noses and ears are vulnerable to problems because the cartilage can be pierced instead of the soft tissue, plastic surgeons say. Cartilage is found along the outside top edge of the ear--a popular spot for multiple piercings--and in portions of the nose.

"Infection can lead to a loss of cartilage," says Dr. Anthony P. Sclafani, of St. Louis University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "The cartilage is replaced by scar tissue, which then retracts and is difficult to repair. A nostril can be pulled up by scar tissue. Or we see a so-called cauliflower ear as the result of infected cartilage."

Another common problem is the allergic reaction that results from the use of inexpensive jewelry that contains nickel; gold, platinum or pure non-metallic stainless steel are better choices.

"The problems are occurring because it's expensive to have things done right," says Tim Anderson, a piercer at Nothing Shocking in Fullerton. "These kids think you can get ears done for $8 at the mall and then they don't want to pay $45 to get their navel done. They also buy [inexpensive] jewelry somewhere else and ask us to put it in. But I will not help them with making a mistake."

Professional piercers say that untrained piercers may insert jewelry in the wrong place or angle and may use the wrong tools.

"It's a very technical skill," says Grey, who helped found the Assn. of Professional Piercers, based in San Francisco. The group has recruited only 15 member organizations thus far. "People should spend at least one year under full supervision. But it's frequently done incorrectly. People use [piercing] guns, which are awful; they are not sterile."

Grey says manufacturers claim the gun never touches the skin and thus cannot spread infection. But Grey says a microscopic spray of blood can contaminate the gun.

Professional piercers use disposable or autoclaved instruments, sterile, disposable needles and jewelry in sterile bags or which has already been disinfected, Grey says.

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