Definition of Piercing Risks

piercingsSkin piercings for cosmetic purposes have become popular in the United States, especially among young people. Most people who have piercings experience minor complications at some point.

Wearing jewelry in the piercing, which is necessary to maintain the piercing, also establishes circumstances for hypersensitivity reaction and infection.

Long-term complications of piercings can include deformity of the tissues at the piercing site and the risk for systemic infection such as hepatitis.

Hypersensitivity Response

Contact dermatitis, often as a hypersensitivity reaction to the nickel in stainless steel, is the most common dermatologic complication of piercings. In contact dermatitis, the skin at the piercing location becomes red (erythema) and inflamed. It may itch or hurt.

The piercing may swell, causing the tissue to close around the jewelry. Removing the jewelry and cleansing the site with an antiseptic solution made for this purpose helps soothe the irritated tissues and reduce inflammation.


Infection is a common problem that may develop as a complication of contact dermatitis, as a result of contaminated piercing needles and devices, or as a consequence of improper cleansing after piercing. Contamination is a significant risk with self-piercing.

Early detection and treatment is important to prevent the infection from invading deeper tissues. Ear cartilage piercings are particularly vulnerable to infection as well as resistant to treatment for infection, as the blood supply to the area is sparse. Navel and genital piercings also are vulnerable to infection as a result of irritation from clothing and moisture.

Piercing jewelry made of plastic, wood, bone, and other permeable materials can harbor bacteria. Minor infections generally improve with topical antibiotic medications. More extensive infections require a doctor’s evaluation and often require more involved treatment such as oral antibiotic medications and antiseptic cleansing of the piercing site.

Systemic infection such as hepatitis, and less commonly hiv/aids, is a significant risk when reusing or sharing piercing jewelry and needles. The hepatitis VIRUS can live outside the human body for extended periods of time. Piercings in and around the mouth carry the risk for bacterial infection that can involve the heart valves because the mouth has a rich blood supply as well as an abundance of bacteria.

Deformity and Piercings

Small piercings (16 gauge and smaller) will heal closed without scarring when the person no longer wears jewelry in the piercing to keep it open. Larger piercings (12 gauge and larger) may not heal closed, or may close with puckering of the tissue. Large-gauge piercings may stretch the tissues, such as the earlobes or lips, causing permanent enlargement.

Infections, particularly of the ear cartilage, can destroy tissue, requiring plastic surgery to restore the appearance and sometimes the function of the tissue.

Piercings of the penis can damage or destroy erectile tissue, nerves, or the urethra. Clitoral piercing can damage nerves and cause structural damage to the clitoris and surrounding labia, particularly as a consequence of infection.

Preventing Piercing Complications

Basic hygienic methods can prevent most piercing complications. These methods include

  • having piercings done by reputable, experienced professionals who use only disposable needles and equipment
  • daily cleansing of piercing sites, such as washing with gentle soap and water during regular showering or bathing, or using a commercially available antiseptic cleansing solution for piercing sites
  • frequently changing and cleaning piercing jewelry
  • not sharing piercing jewelry
  • wearing piercing jewelry made of impermeable materials such as metals


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