So you are writing a school paper on piercing…
Infection is one of the most frightening and potentially serious dangers associated with body piercing. Two distinct phases are of concern: If you get pierced in unsanitary conditions, or with unsterile implements or jewelry, an infection can be transmitted during the piercing. Or, if you fail to care for the wound properly throughout its healing period, you can get an infection after the piercing is done. Studies show that the risk of infection increases when either the piercer’s technique or the aftercare is poor.
The incidence of infection is difficult to calculate because there is no reliable information about how many piercings are actually being performed. Some smaller studies done on college campuses usually reveal more about the quality of nearby piercers than they do about the rate of infection for body piercing in general.
Our world is full of microorganisms (germs, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses). Many of these are harmless—or even beneficial—to us, but some are pathogenic (capable of causing infection or disease). We are all routinely exposed to countless germs, but many complex factors impact how they affect us, including the potency and amount of an organism entering the body, and how it gets in, as well as the strength of the immune system.
The viruses hepatitis B and C and HIV are examples of bloodborne pathogens (micro- organisms that can cause disease when present in the blood). They are of particular concern because if the needles or jewelry are not sterile, there is potential for these serious bloodborne diseases to be transmitted during piercing.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is quite fragile and dies quickly when exposed to air; there have been no documented cases of HIV transmission through piercing. The hepatitis virus, however, is easier to transmit because it is quite hardy. Studies show that hepatitis B can live on a dry surface for at least seven days! Even though the virus is robust, improperly performed body art accounts for a very small proportion of hepatitis transmissions.
Bacterial infections can range from minor skin eruptions to deadly infections of the brain or lining of the heart. Never ignore a suspected infection: left untreated, certain kinds that start out as trivial can become lethal. Local bacterial infection (at the site of the piercing) is the most common sort, and deeper, larger, or systemic infections in healthy piercees are fairly rare.
The medical field has developed specific infection-control practices, called Standard Precautions (formerly Universal Precautions), for dealing with blood or other potentially infectious body fluids and any equipment that could be contaminated with them. Safe piercers are educated about these procedures and adhere to them meticulously.
Health Conditions and Piercings
Certain medical conditions make piercings riskier, and in some cases inadvisable. Health problems that weaken your infection-fighting defenses, including diabetes, lupus, HIV/AIDS, and other immune system disorders, can make you slow to heal. You might be more vulnerable to infection, and if you do contract one, it could be more severe and harder to cure.
Some heart disorders make you susceptible to infective endocarditis (a potentially deadly infection of the lining of the heart or heart valves, previously referred to as bacterial endocarditis). If you have a history of this illness or serious cardiac problems like a valve replacement, an ethical piercer will require proof that you have consulted with your doctor before proceeding. If you ordinarily must take antibiotic prophylaxis (preventive treatment) before dental procedures, your physician may recommend this before piercing. Cardiac ailments are one of the few preexisting conditions that can increase the risk of a fatal outcome: if you are advised against piercing due to your health, heed your doctor’s word!
Rashes such as eczema or psoriasis, scars such as keloids, and other skin abnormalities are less serious health issues. If you are considering a piercing in an area affected by one of these conditions, seek an evaluation by an experienced piercer and a piercing-friendly doctor.
Some states have regulations that require piercers to ask clients specific health-history questions on the release form before piercing, whereas other states have laws that prohibit piercers from asking certain health questions. Be honest about your medical history and respect a piercer who has the principles to decline to pierce you if the risk is unacceptable.
Allergies and Skin Problems
All sorts of bumps, lumps, and skin irritations can crop up around a piercing, coming and going as healing progresses and occasionally remaining permanently. Some of these are caused by mechanical stress against the piercing; others are caused by a cleaning product or jewelry material. Skin disorders can be difficult to diagnose, even for dermatologists, so experimentation is needed at times to identify and correct a problem. Conditions can also have a combination of causes, which further complicates diagnosis and treatment.
A nickel allergy can be triggered by jewelry made of inferior metal. This type of allergy can be serious and irreversible, which is one reason it is critical to wear only high-quality, inert jewelry (see brochure “Jewelry for Initial Piercings,”).
Migration and Rejection
Two rather distinctive piercing complications are migration (the piercing moves from its initial placement, then settles and heals in a new location) and rejection (the jewelry is expelled completely from the body). The piercing is likely to migrate when unsuitable or insufficient tissue is pierced, or if your jewelry is too small in diameter, thin in gauge, or of poor quality. Inexperienced and untrained piercers often make these errors.
Migration and rejection can also result from using a harsh aftercare product, following poor health habits, or experiencing excessive physical trauma or emotional stress during the healing period. And, unfortunately, sometimes even when everything is done properly, a piercing will migrate or reject for no known reason. This is simply a risk of placing a foreign object through your skin: it may not stay in the desired position.
Scarring and Permanent Physical Changes
A piercing has the potential to be a temporary adornment (especially when compared to a tattoo), because the jewelry can easily be removed. There is a risk, however, of irreversible changes to the body, including discoloration, a mark such as a scar, bump, or dimple, or a permanent hole.
Many piercings shrink or close quickly, but some piercings will remain open indefinitely without jewelry in them. The placement of the hole, the length of time you have worn the piercing, the thickness of the jewelry that was in it, and your individual tissue all impact whether or not your piercing stays viable after removing the jewelry.
Piercings that are stretched to large dimensions commonly leave significant voids that may be considered disfiguring; to correct them, plastic surgery is required. Stretching a piercing too quickly or attempting to expand unsuitably thin tissue leads to problems. One potential consequence of overzealous stretching is a blowout (part of the interior channel is pushed out, leaving an unsightly lip of flesh on one side of the piercing). This distortion will usually be a lasting reminder of your hasty actions unless it is surgically removed. Piercings that are stretched improperly can also suffer from thinning tissue that does not regrow. A worst-case scenario is tissue necrosis (death) and the loss of the piercing and some of the skin in the area. Jewelry that exerts excessive pressure against underlying bone can cause bone necrosis.
There are piercings that have a tendency to effect changes such as the hardening or thickening of the tissue surrounding the openings, and this can be irreversible. For example, nipple piercings are known for causing permanent enlargement, especially in underdeveloped (small) anatomy.
Scarring and tissue discoloration at the piercing site are relatively normal occurrences, especially if you have a history of darkened scars. This can happen even when a piercing is performed properly and heals uneventfully. Migration often leaves a small track of scarring or discoloration from where the piercing was initially placed. Rejection usually results in a split scar. Piercings of the ear cartilage are prone to disfigurement if a serious infection develops. The cartilage can collapse, causing a “cauliflower ear” appearance.
Excessive scarring sometimes occurs in reaction to piercing, and it can be very difficult to resolve. If you have a history of problems with scarring or keloids (large growths of fibrous tissue), piercing is generally inadvisable.
Accidents happen, and there is a risk of catching jewelry and tearing a piercing. An act as simple as taking off your shirt can be dangerous for a piercing on the torso, face, or ear. Strenuous workouts, airbags, pets, children—even sexual activities—can cause ripping or splitting. Obviously, healing piercings are more delicate and vulnerable to injury, but older piercings are still susceptible.
You must be aware of your jewelry and your movements, take steps to protect your piercing, and avoid activities that could lead to such accidents. If you engage in sports or other behaviors that pose a risk to your piercings, wear protective gear.
Jewelry that is too thin can carve through the flesh like a wire slicing a wedge of cheddar: hence, I coined the term cheese-cutter effect to describe this unpleasant (and largely preventable) occurrence. Wearing charms or heavy weights on thin-gauge wires makes trouble likely.
Somewhat less predictable incidents can take place when jewelry in oral or nasal piercings is swallowed or, more seriously, inhaled. The best way to prevent this is by wearing quality jewelry of the proper fit and checking the closure (bead or ball) daily to ensure that it is tightly affixed.
Why are some of the most common reasons why people decide to get body piercing?
The urge to decorate the body and control one’s appearance is a universal human trait. Each of us uses clothing, hairstyle, and so on to express our individuality and to make the most of the gifts or curses—perceived or real—bestowed by nature. Nowadays we have more choices than ever to manipulate our looks. The options range from minor adjustments such as hair dye and teeth whitener to more extreme but still socially acceptable practices such as liposuction and breast implants. Although body modification is still less conventional than, say, getting a nose job, it has become prevalent in today’s world.
Piercing and other types of body modification are methods of changing the actual physical form, which is empowering in a way that may not be fully understood by those who have never participated in it. Women, in particular, are bombarded by the media’s unrealistic notions of beauty, which deeply affect self-esteem and body image. They may turn to piercing or other forms of body art to help them embrace a positive attitude about themselves. While there is no unanimous consensus about whether body jewelry enhances appearance, aesthetics is a widespread motivating factor for piercing.
Who Gets Pierced and Why?
A casual observer sitting at a sidewalk café in any college town in the United States or Europe might conclude that every college student in the world has a few extra holes in the head. However, piercing is not exclusively a youth phenomenon nor is it always a statement of rebellion. No one should assume that their doctor or banker doesn’t sport a little metal secret. I have pierced people from all professions and socioeconomic backgrounds—rocket scientists, clergy, and retired grandparents among them.
What motivates these diverse people to face their deep-seated fear of needles and pain, withstand discomfort, brave embarrassment, and endure the scorn of strangers, families, or employers and willfully undergo the needle? For piercees, the impetus to do such a thing must be very strong indeed. From the superficial to the profound, there are a multitude of reasons for getting pierced. It might be about attracting attention, the sensation of metal through flesh, or the opportunity to wear some extra “bling.” For others, piercing is a response to deep internal triggers.
There is often a marked difference in age between those who are visibly pierced above the neck and those more discreetly pierced in intimate locations below the neck. Younger people are frequently motivated by a desire to fit in with their peers or the need to establish their independence from their parents. Visible piercings offer a perfect vehicle for fulfilling these desires. Young piercees tend to be more heavily influenced by popular music, media, and fashion, and they are frequently limited in their piercing options by regulations for those under the age of majority.
Older people are obviously not subject to these prohibitions nor are they typically motivated by the same impulses. Many adults endure trauma or other life experiences that lead them to turn to body modification for self-realization and healing purposes. For working adults whose employers frown on visible piercings, torso and genital piercings are popular because they are concealed under everyday clothing.
Piercing and body modification can be used to indicate and solidify one’s cultural identity. There is a sense among many of my pierced and tattooed contemporaries that we belong to an intrinsically interconnected group. One popular piercing web- site calls itself “Tribalectic,” suggesting that its members feel connected to others as part of a contemporary tribe. Many Western piercees describe themselves as “Modern Primitives” and proudly wear ethnic and tribal jewelry made of horn, wood, and stone. Conversely, some tribal people make use of modern materials. The herdsmen of northern Kenya, for example, sometimes use the metals found in telephone wires to make lip and ear ornaments.Today, many young people use piercings to visibly align themselves with rave, goth, skater, and other subcultures. It may seem contradictory, but piercing is sometimes a statement of rebellion and conformity at the same time.
Magical and Symbolic Healing
Piercing can be used as a way to restore physical and spiritual health after a trauma or to exercise some control while struggling with chronic illness or feelings of vulnerability. Many people get pierced with the intention of exchanging bad for good. This type of symbolic healing is used today when women reclaim their bodies by getting a genital piercing after childbearing or sexual assault. Through the conscious act of breaking skin and shedding blood, these people feel whole, connected with their bodies, and in control of their lives again.
Rites of Passage
Ceremonial practices have provided structure and meaning to our lives throughout the ages. Unfortunately, modern society retains few of these practices, so people often struggle to create their own rites to mark the changes in their lives. Piercing accomplishes this when it is used to commemorate a milestone. Many visit a piercing or tat- too studio soon after or even on the very date of their eighteenth birthday to celebrate finally having legal possession of their own skin. Whether or not the piercing experience is consciously approached in a ritual manner, getting a piercing does effect a physical—and possibly an emotional or spiritual—transformation.I have performed piercings to mark births, deaths, graduations, divorces, clean-and- sober time, relationship commitments, anniversaries of all kinds, and other special occasions in people’s lives.
Many adults are motivated to be pierced for sexual gratification. The presence of piercings and jewelry in certain locations results in increased physical stimulation for piercees or their partners. Couples sometimes use piercings to revitalize their sensual focus and reignite the flames in relationships that have lost some of their spark. Intimate piercings can bolster confidence in the bedroom and in oneself as a sexual being.Many people do not find their private parts attractive or appealing. A large proportion of men from Western nations have had their genitals altered through nonconsensual circumcision during infancy. When an individual makes a choice about the appearance of his or her own genitals by piercing and adorning them with jewelry, it can be highly liberating, and for many it inspires a harmony with their bodies that could not be achieved through any other means.
By getting pierced, people make bold statements about personal freedom and combat the impersonality and pressures of modern life. Piercing the body can be an effective way to exert control over one’s existence. Even if their modifications are not visible to the public, people working in conservative environments often use piercings to remind themselves that they are individuals despite the conventionality of their out- ward appearance. One man living in the Midwest told me,
“I was about fifty when I got my first. I live in a place where ignorance and poverty are a career choice. Almost everyone is religious, conservative, and tends to believe that everyone else shares that viewpoint. Bigotry is rampant. I needed to make a statement that said, in effect, I might be one of you, but I’m not one with you. Piercing was, and is, that statement.”
Text courtesy of Elayne Angel, Author
The Piercing Bible—The Definitive Guide to Safe Body Piercing
(available from the APP)
What is the most popular part of the body that most people pierce?
This varies by geographic location and over time. Years ago (in the 1980s when I first started piercing) the nipple was most popular, later it was navel and tongue. These days nostril piercings are incredibly popular and microdermals/surface anchors are very popular.
Do more men or women get body piercing?
It depends on the type of piercing–for nipples, it may be about 50/50, But more women get navel and nostril piercings. Perhaps more men get eyebrow piercings, and so on.
Some statistics found on the Internet:
Nearly 50 percent of Americans ages 21-32 have at least one tattoo or piercing in a body part other than the ear, according to a 2006 survey by researchers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. Among people 18-50, 24 percent had a tattoo and 14 percent a body piercing.
Nearly one in four 18- to 29-year-olds has a piercing somewhere other than an earlobe and four in 10 sport a tattoo, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center report.