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Complications of Body Piercing
DONNA I. MELTZER, M.D., State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine,
Stony Brook, New York

The trend of body piercing at sites other than the earlobe has grown in popularity in the past
decade. The tongue, lips, nose, eyebrows, nipples, navel, and genitals may be pierced. Complica-
tions of body piercing include local and systemic infections, poor cosmesis, and foreign body
rejection. Swelling and tooth fracture are common problems after tongue piercing. Minor infec-
tions, allergic contact dermatitis, keloid formation, and traumatic tearing may occur after pierc-
ing of the earlobe. “High” ear piercing through the ear cartilage is associated with more serious
infections and disfigurement. Fluoroquinolone antibiotics are advised for treatment of auricular
perichondritis because of their antipseudomonal activity. Many complications from piercing are
body-site–specific or related to the piercing technique used. Navel, nipple, and genital piercings
often have prolonged healing times. Family physicians should be prepared to address compli-
cations of body piercing and provide accurate information to patients. (Am Fam Physician
2005;72:2029-34, 2035-6. Copyright 2005 American Academy of Family Physicians.)

S Patient information:
A handout on body pierc-ing, written by the author of this article, is provided on page 2035.
In recent years, body piercing has titanium, or alloys. Surgical stainless steel increased in popularity and social rarely causes allergic skin reactions; how-acceptance. Piercing of various body ever, not all stainless steel products are parts with jewelry is no longer limited nickel-free.15 Gold often is combined with to teenagers, as evidenced by the growing nickel or other metals to make alloys that number of adults with multiple ear pierc- ings. Family physicians should be familiar Nickel in gold-filled or gold-plated jewelry with body piercing practices and associated is associated with a high prevalence of reac-health risks (Table 11-14). No reliable esti- tivity in persons who are nickel sensitive. mates are available for the number of persons who have experienced complications related the stud or clasp on earrings; jewelry with a to body piercing. Persons with increased high karat rating commonly is paired with vulnerability to infection (e.g., patients with less expensive gold-plated studs or earring diabetes, patients taking corticosteroids) backs. Niobium and titanium are light-and those who have an increased likelihood weight elemental metals that rarely produce of hemorrhage (e.g., persons taking antico- an allergic response. Other features to con- agulant medication) may be at greater risk of sider in body piercing jewelry include ease of removal (in case of trauma or radiographs), surface smoothness, and its capacity to with- Body Piercing Jewelry
Most body piercing jewelry consists of rings,
hoops, studs, or barbell-shaped ornaments. Oral Piercings
The size and shape of jewelry is determined The lips, cheeks, and midline of the tongue
by the body site pierced and personal prefer-
are popular sites for oral piercings. Perfora- ences. Jewelry is not always interchangeable tion of lingual blood vessels can cause between piercing sites. In particular, jewelry designed for ear piercing may not be suitable frequently develops after tongue piercing, so for another part of the body because of the a longer barbell is recommended initially.16length of the post or the pressure exerted by Another serious consequence of oral pierc- ing is compromise of the airway from trauma, Most body piercing jewelry is made of tongue swelling, or obstruction by jewelry.1 metal, usually stainless steel, gold, niobium, Securing an adequate airway or endotracheal November 15, 2005 U Volume 72, Number 10 American Family Physician 2029
Body Piercing
Persons contemplating tongue piercing should be advised of the high incidence of tooth chipping associated with such piercings.
Rinsing with nonprescription oral cleansers (e.g., Listerine) or topical application of cleansers (e.g., Gly-Oxide) is recommended to prevent infection after oral piercing.
Antibiotics with good coverage against Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus species (e.g., fluoroquinolones) should be used when treating piercing-associated infections of the auricular cartilage.
Earrings with locking or screw-on backs are recommended for infants and young children because of the risk of ingestion or aspiration.
A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, see page 1949 or intubation can be challenging when a patient has a tongue barbell. If lingual jewelry cannot be removed easily or Potential Complications of Body Piercings
expeditiously, precautions should be taken during intuba-tion to ensure that jewelry is not loosened and aspirated or swallowed. Removal of oral and nasal jewelry also is recommended before nonemergent surgical procedures.
Allergic reaction, auricular perichondritis, DENTAL COMPLICATIONS
embedded earrings, infection, keloid formation, perichondral abscess, traumatic Chipping (or fracture) of teeth is the most common dental problem related to tongue barbells (Figure 1).2 Allergic reaction, compromise of barrier Switching to a shorter barbell reduces damage to the contraceptives, infection, keloid formation dentition and gingiva. Beaded jewelry may become Frictional irritation, infection, paraphimosis, Although there is a risk of infection because of the vast amounts of bacteria in the mouth, the infection rate actually is low. Oral rinses (e.g., Listerine) or applica- Airway compromise, altered eating habits, tion of nonprescription cleansers (e.g., Gly-Oxide) may gingival trauma, hematoma formation, increased salivary flow, infection, injury be recommended prophylactically after oral piercing.17 Ludwig’s angina is rare, but this rapidly spreading oral radiographs, loss of taste, Ludwig’s angina, cellulitis has been reported as a complication of tongue piercing.5 Treatment involves maintaining an adequate impediments, tooth fracture or chipping, airway, administration of systemic antibiotics, and sur- Bacterial endocarditis,* frictional irritation, infection, jewelry migration and rejection Ear Piercings
Abscess formation, bacterial endocarditis,* INFECTIOUS COMPLICATIONS
The ear is the most common site for body piercing. In Infection, jewelry swallowing or aspiration, one study,6 up to 35 percent of persons with pierced ears perichondritis and necrosis of nasal wall, septal hematoma formation had one or more complications (e.g., minor infection [77 percent], allergic reaction [43 percent], keloid formation *—In patients with moderate- to high-risk cardiac conditions. [2.5 percent], and traumatic tearing [2.5 percent]).
Information from references 1 through 14. Multiple ear piercings have gained popularity, espe- cially “high” piercing through the cartilage of the pinna 2030 American Family Physician
Volume 72, Number 10 U November 15, 2005 Body Piercing
Persons with atopic dermatitis or allergic metal con- tact dermatitis are at increased risk for developing minor staphylococcal or streptococcal skin infections.20A localized infection of the earlobe may not be easily differentiated from allergic contact dermatitis unless there is purulent drainage or a high index of suspicion.21Superficial earlobe infections tend to have a benign course and respond well to local treatment, including warm, moist packs and application of over-the-counter topical antibiotic ointment. Treatment with 2 percent mupirocin ointment (Bactroban) or oral antistaphylo-coccal antibiotics may be warranted.
Figure 1. Tongue barbell with an acrylic ball.
The earlobe is a common site for hypertrophic scarring and keloid formation. In addition to aesthetic concerns, patients with keloids may have itching and tenderness. Treatment options for keloids include surgical exci-sion, intralesional corticosteroid injections, cryosurgery, pressure dressing, radiation, and laser therapy.22,23 Contact dermatitis resulting from nickel exposure is common. Contact sensitivity to gold and localized argyria, a skin discoloration resulting from silver salts, also have been described.21,24 Avoidance of the metals that trigger a reaction and application of topical cortico-steroids hasten the resolution of allergic dermatitis.
Occasionally, inflammation or infection results in such significant swelling that an earring must be removed. The pierced hole can be maintained by inserting a ring made from a 20-gauge Teflon catheter with silicone Figure 2. “High” ear piercing through the cartilage.
tubing into the hole while the surrounding skin heals.25Similarly, a loop fashioned from nylon suture material (Figure 2). These piercings are associated with poor heal- may keep a piercing intact during the healing process.
ing and more serious infection because of the avascular Earrings can become embedded in the earlobe, a com- nature of auricular cartilage. Auricular perichondritis plication common in persons with thick, fleshy earlobes and perichondrial abscess typically occur in the first that are pierced with spring-loaded guns.26 Piercing month after piercing, especially during warm-weather guns exert high pressure on the soft tissue of the earlobe months.7 Auricular perichondritis presents as painful and cannot be adjusted for varying tissue thickness. swelling, warmth, and redness in a portion of the auricle Embedding may be prevented by using longer earring that often spares the earlobe. Acute tenderness on deflect- ing the auricular cartilage helps distinguish this deeper If gentle probing fails to locate an embedded ear- perichondrial infection from a superficial skin infec- ring, a small incision under local anesthesia (without tion. Minor infections can progress to perichondritis, epinephrine) may be necessary to locate and remove the abscess formation, and necrosis with or without systemic earring or backing. Any suspected infection should be symptoms. The most common pathogens (i.e., Pseudo- treated. Over-the-counter topical antimicrobials (e.g., monas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus, and Streptococ- bacitracin, Polysporin, Neosporin) are indicated for cus pyogenes) respond well to fluoroquinolone antibiotic treatment of superficial skin infections. Oral antibiotics treatment (e.g., ciprofloxacin [Cipro]).18,19 If an abscess is such as the first-generation cephalosporins (e.g., cepha- present, surgical incision and drainage often are neces- lexin [Keflex], cefadroxil [Duricef]) and penicillin- sary. Once an abscess develops, good cosmetic preserva- ase-resistant penicillins (e.g., dicloxacillin [Dynapen]) tion of the auricular cartilage is difficult to maintain. are appropriate treatment options for more serious November 15, 2005 U Volume 72, Number 10 American Family Physician 2031
Body Piercing
wound infections. An earring can be replaced or the ear repierced six to eight weeks after resolution of local swelling and tenderness.21 Trauma to the pierced external ear is common. Lac- erations to the ear may occur after falls, motor vehicle crashes, contact sports, person-to-person violence, or accidental pulling of an earring. The simplest laceration occurs when an earring is pulled through the earlobe, especially if the original earring hole was close to the periphery (Figure 3). Prolonged wearing of heavy jewelry also may result in an elongated tract or bifid deformity of the earlobe. All wounds should be cleaned and repaired within 12 to 24 hours. A simple ear lobe tear can be sutured Figure 3. Traumatic tear of the earlobe.
under local anesthesia. If the hole has closed, the ear
lobe can be repierced in a nonscarred area after approxi-
during noncontact personal workouts.30 Jewelry that mately three months.27 Various closure techniques have interferes with mouthguards or protective equipment been described in the literature28 for more complex lac- erations of ear cartilage. Many family physicians refer these complicated injuries to subspecialists for repair.
Nose Piercing
Pointed earring posts may cause pressure sores or The nose can be pierced in the fleshy nares or through postauricular skin irritation when worn during sleep. the cartilaginous septum. Septal piercings usually are Removal of jewelry performed in the inferior fleshy part of the septum and at bedtime is indi- not through cartilaginous tissue. Piercing the cartilage Treatment with a
cated if switching can cause significant bleeding and lead to septal hema- fluoroquinolone antibiotic
toma formation that often is accompanied by infection. is indicated for “high” ear
ring style does not Other potential complications that may result in cos- piercing infections of the
metic deformity include perichondritis and necrosis of upper ear cartilage.
the cartilaginous nasal wall. Infection requires aggres- sive treatment with antibiotics that have good coverage pierced ears should be informed of the risk of aspiration against Staphylococcus species that commonly colonize and ingestion of earring parts. In such situations, earrings the nasal mucosa. Mupirocin is effective and offers with a locking back or screw back are advisable.29 excellent coverage against gram-positive cocci. Fluoro- Family physicians play an important role in promot- quinolones have the advantage of excellent skin penetra- ing injury prevention by recommending that all jewelry tion and added coverage against Pseudomonas species.
be removed during contact sports to avoid endangering Nasal jewelry has the potential to be aspirated or swal- the wearer and other players. If body jewelry remains lowed. Rings placed in the nostril or septum also can comfortable and does not produce frictional irritation, migrate forward or be pulled out. As with ear piercing, athletes should be able to keep the jewelry in place the studs or backings of the jewelry may become embed-ded and require surgical removal.31 The Author
Navel Piercing
DONNA I. MELTZER, M.D., is associate professor in the Department The navel or periumbilical area is a popular self-pierc- of Family Medicine at the State University of New York (SUNY) at ing site. Friction from clothing with tight-fitting waist- Stony Brook School of Medicine. Dr. Meltzer received her medical bands and subsequent skin maceration may account degree from Albany (N.Y.) Medical College and completed a family medicine residency and a faculty development fellowship at SUNY for the delayed healing and increased infection rates of navel piercings (Table 28,9). Careful placement of jewelry and avoidance of rigidly fixed jewelry may Address correspondence to Donna I. Meltzer, M.D., Department of Family Medicine, SUNY Stony Brook School of Medicine, Stony Brook, NY 11794 (e-mail: Superficial navel piercings often tend to migrate to Reprints are not available from the author. the skin surface. The problem of jewelry migration and 2032 American Family Physician
Volume 72, Number 10 U November 15, 2005 Body Piercing
Approximate Healing Times
for Body Piercing Sites

of infection around an implant,32,33 little information is available about nipple piercing after breast implanta- tion or chest wall augmentation. The effects of nipple piercings on lactation are not clear, but jewelry or scar tissue could impair latching on or block a milk duct and adversely affect an infant’s ability to breastfeed. Genital Piercings
Genital piercings reportedly enhance sexual sensitivity. Piercing sites in men include the penile glans and ure- thra, foreskin, and scrotum; sites in women include the clitoral prepuce or body, labia minora, labia majora, and PIERCINGS IN MEN
Jewelry inserted through the glans penis often inter- Information from references 8 and 9. rupts urinary flow. Paraphimosis (i.e., the inability to replace a retracted foreskin) has been associated with urethral and glans piercings in uncircumcised men.11The foreskin may be reduced manu- Male genital piercing can
result in priapism, urethral
stricture, and paraphimosis.
maneuver is unsuc-cessful, the prepuce can be injected with hyaluronidase (Vitrase) to allow the edematous fluid to dissipate.35 Penile rings also can cause engorgement and priapism (i.e., persistent erec-tion), requiring emergency treatment to preserve erectile function.
Women with genital piercings can develop bleeding, Figure 4. Hypertrophic scarring that developed after a infections, allergic reactions, keloids, and scarring.12
navel ring began to migrate to the skin’s surface during the
Sexually active persons with genital piercings should be counseled that jewelry may compromise the use of barrier contraceptive methods. Condoms may be more rejection is compounded by wearing heavily weighted, prone to break and diaphragms may be more easily thin-gauge jewelry. Migration of navel rings and sub- dislodged during sexual activity when one or both part- sequent scarring are more problematic in overweight ners have genital piercings. Avoiding jewelry with sharp patients and in the latter stages of pregnancy as abdomi- edges and using looser-fitting condoms or double con- nal girth expands (Figure 4). Wearing a curved barbell doms may help avoid some of these problems.36instead of a ring until the navel piercing has healed may reduce irritation and scarring.
Systemic Infectious Complications
The American Heart Association guidelines on endo- Nipple Piercing
carditis prophylaxis37 do not specifically address the Before nipple and areolae piercings, men and women need for antibiotics in persons contemplating ear or should be counseled about the lengthy time required body piercings. One small study38 of children and adults for complete healing and the risk of delayed infection. with congenital heart disease found no cases of endo-Abscess formation has been reported following nipple carditis after ear piercing, even though only 6 percent piercing.10 Except for case reports of cellulitis and spread of patients received prophylactic antibiotic treatment. November 15, 2005 U Volume 72, Number 10 American Family Physician 2033
Body Piercing
Recent reports13,14 of bacterial endocarditis after nipple 14. Weinberg JB, Blackwood RA. Case report of Staphylococcus aureus endocarditis after navel piercing. Pediatr Infect Dis J 2003;22:94-6.
and navel piercings in patients with surgically corrected 15. Gawkrodger DJ. Nickel dermatitis: how much nickel is safe? Contact congenital heart disease should prompt physicians to consider antibiotic prophylaxis in patients with moder- 16. Reichl RB, Dailey JC. Intraoral body-piercing: a case report. Gen Dent ate- or high-risk cardiac conditions.
With any piercing, there is the danger of infection, 17. Maibaum WW, Margherita VA. Tongue piercing: a concern for the including hepatitis B or C virus and tetanus.8 Body pierc- 18. Folz BJ, Lippert BM, Kuelkens C, Werner JA. Hazards of piercing and ing as a possible vector for human immunodeficiency facial body art: a report of three patients and literature review. Ann virus transmission has been suggested.39 Nonsterile pierc- ing techniques and poor hygiene contribute significantly 19. More DR, Seidel JS, Bryan PA. Ear-piercing techniques as a cause of to the increased risk of infection. Although earrings auricular chondritis. Pediatr Emerg Care 1999;15:189-92.
20. George J, White M. Infection as a consequence of ear piercing. Practi- may be sterilized before use, most piercing “guns” are not sterilized between procedures. Ear piercing systems 21. Hendricks WM. Complications of ear piercing: treatment and preven-using disposable sterile cassettes are available.
Family physicians should help patients make informed 22. Shaffer JJ, Taylor SC, Cook-Bolden F. Keloidal scars: a review with a decisions about body piercings and counsel them about critical look at therapeutic options. J Am Acad Dermatol 2002;46(2 suppl Understanding):S63-97.
the importance of universal precautions. Physicians 23. Akoz T, Gideroglu K, Akan M. Combination of different techniques for should remain nonjudgmental so that patients are not the treatment of earlobe keloids. Aesthetic Plast Surg 2002;26:184-8.
reluctant to report a problem. Because body piercing 24. Sugden P, Azad S, Erdmann M. Argyria caused by an earring. Br J Plast salons are unregulated in many states, some physicians may choose to perform body piercing procedures in the 25. Nakamura M, Uchinuma E, Itoh M, Shioya N. Device that keeps a pierced ear hole intact while treating an infected earlobe. Aesthetic 26. Muntz HR, Pa-C DJ, Asher BF. Embedded earrings: a complication of Author disclosure: Nothing to disclose.
the ear-piercing gun. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol 1990;19:73-6.
27. Watson D. Torn earlobe repair. Otolaryngol Clin North Am 2002;35:187- REFERENCES
28. Park SS, Hood RJ. Auricular reconstruction. Otolaryngol Clin North Am 1. Price SS, Lewis MW. Body piercing involving oral sites. J Am Dent Assoc 29. Becker PG, Turow J. Earring aspiration and other jewelry hazards. Pedi- 2. Boardman R, Smith RA. Dental implications of oral piercing. J Calif Dent 30. Schnirring L. Body piercing and sports: an opening for trouble? Phys 3. Hardee PS, Mallya LR, Hutchison IL. Tongue piercing resulting in hypo- tensive collapse. Br Dent J 2000;188:657-8.
31. Watson MG, Campbell JB, Pahor AL. Complications of nose piercing. Br 4. Keogh IJ, O’Leary G. Serious complication of tongue piercing. J Laryn- 32. Javaid M, Shibu M. Breast implant infection following nipple piercing. 5. Perkins CS, Meisner J, Harrison JM. A complication of tongue piercing. 33. de Kleer N, Cohen M, Semple J, Simor A, Antonyshyn O. Nipple piercing 6. Simplot TC, Hoffman HT. Comparison between cartilage and soft tissue may be contraindicated in male patients with chest implants. Ann Plast ear piercing complications. Am J Otolaryngol 1998;19:305-10.
7. Staley R, Fitzgibbon JJ, Anderson C. Auricular infections caused by high 34. Koenig LM, Carnes M. Body piercing medical concerns with cutting- ear piercing in adolescents. Pediatrics 1997;99:610-1.
edge fashion. J Gen Intern Med 1999;14:379-85.
8. Tweeten SS, Rickman LS. Infectious complications of body piercing. Clin 35. Jones SA, Flynn RJ. An unusual (and somewhat piercing) cause of para- 9. Anderson WR, Summerton DJ, Sharma DM, Holmes SA. The urologist’s 36. Muldoon KA. Body piercing in adolescents. J Pediatr Health Care guide to genital piercing. BJU Int 2003;91:245-51.
10. Trupiano JK, Sebek BA, Goldfarb J, Levy LR, Hall GS, Procop GW. Masti- 37. Dajani AS, Taubert KA, Wilson W, Bolger AF, Bayer A, Ferrieri P, et al. tis due to Mycobacterium abscessus after body piercing. Clin Infect Dis Prevention of bacterial endocarditis. Recommendations by the Ameri- can Heart Association. JAMA 1997;277:1794-801.
11. Hansen RB, Olsen LH, Langkilde NC. Piercing of the glans penis. Scand 38. Cetta F, Graham LC, Lichtenberg RC, Warnes CA. Piercing and tattoo- ing in patients with congenital heart disease: patient and physician 12. Miller L, Edenholm M. Genital piercing to enhance sexual satisfaction. perspectives. J Adolesc Health 1999;24:160-2.
39. Pugatch D, Mileno M, Rich JD. Possible transmission of human immu- 13. Ochsenfahrt C, Friedl R, Hannekum A, Schumacher BA. Endocarditis nodeficiency virus type 1 from body piercing. Clin Infect Dis 1998;26: after nipple piercing in a patient with a bicuspid aortic valve. Ann Tho- 2034 American Family Physician
Volume 72, Number 10 U November 15, 2005


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