Body piercings have become a fashion trend throughout the globe, from the multiple ear piercings to tongue, belly button and nipple rings. For the more adventurous, body piercings may extend to the genitalia and is often less painful than piercing other areas, especially the tongue. Although body piercings have been a part of cultural practices for literally thousands of years, the method of piercings have rapidly changed to ensure a quick process with limited pain and low risk of complications like infections. Nevertheless there are risks associated with body piercings and this risk increases when piercings are done in an unhygienic setting and an untrained person.
The skin is a barrier that is made up of an outer waterproof layer known as the epidermis, an inner soft living tissue known as the dermis and tissue below it broadly referred to as the subcutaneous tissue. This also includes the subcutaneous fat. Depending on the location of the piercing, there may be penetration of all these layers. The integrity of the skin is immediately compromised and within weeks the body will form scar tissue around the impaled organ to wall it off from living tissue. However, in the interim, there is the possibility of microorganisms reaching the exposed living tissue.
Body Piercing Infections
Many of the infections that arise secondary to a body piercing are caused by bacteria. In most cases these bacteria are normally present on human skin in limited population sizes. It usually does not cause any disease and along with different types of skin fungi, these bacteria are known as the normal skin flora. The barrier function of the skin and the immune system, as well as an interplay with other microorganisms on the skin, prevent most of the microbes from causing any disease. However, once the skin integrity is compromised with a piercing, these microorganisms can gain entry into the underlying tissue. An infection may then occur. In most cases this is caused by Streptococci, like Streptococcus epidermidis, or Staphylococcus aureus. Sometimes if there is fecal contaminatoin, Escherichia coli (E.coli) may also cause an infection as well as various other bacterial species.
An infection will not definitely occur with a body piercing. New methods, trained professionals, proper sterilization techniques and hygienic practices actually make an infection unlikely in a body art shop. Infections are more likely to occur when once returns home and does not adequately tend to the site of the piercing. Proper cleaning of the site with a suitable antiseptic is essential to avoid complications such as infection. Should an infection arise, it is advisable to seek medical attention rather than managing it in the home environment with crude remedies. The infection may be short lived but there is always the risk of it complicating. With regards to the skin, this can progress to infections of the underlying tissue and the condition is known as cellulitis.
Signs of an Infected Body Piercing
A pus discharge, especially if yellow to brown or blood -tinged and with a foul odor, is the most prominent sign of an infection. Other signs and symptoms like pain, swelling and redness can be expected with a piercing as the injury to the skin causes inflammation, even without any infection. A fever, chills and spread of inflammation and pustular discharge should be taken seriously and warrant the need for immediate medical attention as it is a sign of a spreading infection. Once the infection spreads in to the blood stream, which is known as septicemia or ‘blood poisoning’, the consequences can be grave and even lead to death. However, at the hand of a skilled professional, a piercing should cause minimal complications, if any at all.
Wound Care for a Body Piercing
Ice is commonly used on a piercing and helps to reduce inflammation and further reduce pain by numbing the area. It should be used cautiously so as to prevent cell injury from the low temperatures. A mild anesthetic cream or gel may also help with the pain but this should be prescribed by a medical doctor who can first assess the area. Numbing the pain is like turning off the body’s ‘warning signal’ to an injury and may prevent a person from realizing that something has gone awry with the piercing.
Less frequently, an anti-inflammatory topical application may be used to relieve inflammation but most of these gels and creams should not be used on broken skin so it has to be used cautiously. Regularly cleaning of the area with an appropriate disinfectant and following up with an antimicrobial topical application is the best way to tend to a newly pierced area and reduce the chance of any infection.
Removing a Body Piercing
Many adults may eventually opt to remove their body piercing once the novelties of youth subside. However, there is often some permanent scarring that may be visible. Piercings should ideally be removed by a medical doctor, preferably a dermatologist, to reduce the risk of complications and limit any further damage that may lead to pronounced scarring.
The main complication, apart from the scarring, that may arise with the removal of a body piercing is an infection. A ring is an impaled object, around which scar tissue forms and plugs the broken skin over weeks and months after the piercing. Removing the piercing may expose the area and allow pathogenic microorganisms, mainly bacteria, from invading the area. Careful removal at the hands of a medical professional is therefore advisable.
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Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on December 14, 2011