Skin piercings are a common cosmetic and cultural practice across the world. Its main purpose is for the placement of ornaments and jewelry, with the ear lobes being among the most commoly piered area of the body. Piercings are usually safe if done properly and if appropriate measures are taken before and after the piercing to prevent any infections. Bacterial infections are by far the most common complication but can be largely avoided.
Staph Infected Piercing
The surface of the body is teeming with various species of bacteria. Some are largely harmless while others are highly infectious and dangerous yet pose no risk to unbroken skin. These naturally occurring skin bacteria and yeasts are referred to as the normal skin flora. There are also many different species of bacteria in the air and within surfaces which may also occasionally make contact with the skin.
Read more on body piercing infections.
Staph bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus) live on the skin of many healthy individuals without causing any infections. When the skin is pierced, especially in or around the nose or mouth, in the armpits, under the breasts, or around the genitalia, bacteria may enter the skin and cause an infection. This usually appears within the first days before skin puncture heals. It appears as a reddish, slightly swollen patch of the skin (cellulitis), or as a painful red bump (boil) that may start to drain pus in a few days.
Bacteria on the skin surface, including staph bacteria, can also be found on the breast surface. Apart from causing an abscess or cellulitis, an infection of the nipple may lead to scarring of the breast tissue. This can have long term effects whereby ducts are damaged if the nipple itself is not deformed and this may cause problems with breastfeeding.
The mouth is teeming with many different species of bacteria, sometimes even more species than on the skin surface. Lip piercings are therefore particularly prone to infections as it is continuous with the mouth cavity as well as the skin surface. There is also a greater danger when it comes to lip piercings. A piercing in the mouth may enable bacteria to enter the blood and reach the heart valves, what can result in bacterial endocarditis.
Piercings of the external genitalia is one of the areas where the risk of an infection is very high. The genitalia are teeming with bacteria and due to orifices leading to deeper organs, an infection can lead to serious complications. It is important that these type of piercings are done by experienced professional and all necessary pre- and post-piercing precautions are taken to prevent an infection.
Causes of Staph Piercing Infections
Human skin acts as a physical barrier, protecting the inner environment from the various physical, chemical and microbial dangers in the external environment. However, when the skin is broken then its protective ability is compromised. Microbes can enter the skin and if a person does not have a properly functioning immune system then these microbes can cause infections of even the deeper tissue.
Most piercings, when properly done, do not lead to infections. Firstly the skin immediately on and around the area that is pierced is disinfected. This destroys any bacteria that are likely to enter the piercing. Fortunately the body will temporarily repair the area of the piercing within hours ina healthy person with permanent repair occuring within days to weeks thereafter. The risk of a skin infection decreases as the area heals.
However, piercings done in unhygienic conditiosn and without proper disinfecting of the skin prior to the piercing will increase the risk of the infection. The same applies if the needle used for the piercing is not sterile. Due to the risk of infections like HIV and hepatitis, new needles should be used on every person undergoing a piercing. If this is not possible then needles must be sterilized with autoclaving.
Proper wound care is important after a piercing. The area should be thoroughly dried if wet, like after bathing. An electric hair dryer may be helpful in this regard. An antimicrobial ointment should also be applied several times a day, particularly after bathing. This will prevent bacteria that travel or make contact with pierced area from infecting the wound.
Lastly, there is the immune system which plays a role in determining whether an infection will occur or not. A healthy immune system will prevent an infection from occurring in most instances. However, people with a weakened immune system are at risk not just of a staph infection but even other more serious infections. Therefore piercings should be done with caution in people who are immune compromised.
How to treat an infection
It is important to see a medical professional if an infection arises or is suspected. Prompt medical treatment can reduce complications. This applies to any infection of a piercing and not only a staph infection. Superficial bacterial infections can be treated with topical applications and sometimes oral antibiotics may be needed.
A broad spectrum antimicrobial ointment must be applied to the affected area several times a day. In addition, the area must be thoroughly dried after bathing although it is best not to get the area wet until the infection resolves. The jewelry or ornament has to be removed if an infection sets in. Sometimes it may be necessary to allow the area to heal and for the piercing to close to properly treat the infection.
Depending on the severity of the infection, it may be necessay to use oral antibiotics. It is imperative that the entire course of antibiotics is completed as prescribed, even if the symptoms of the infection eases midway through the course. The rise of drug-resistant staph bacteria in recent years is largely due to the misuse of antibiotics. If not completed properly, the infection can be difficult to treat thereafter.
Read more on the treatment of staph skin infections.