Body piercing is popular, but it is important to consider why you want a piercing and how it may affect your life. Poor hygiene and care can lead to infection, allergic reactions, scarring, nerve damage or blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis or HIV. Always choose a piercer whose premises are registered with the local council and who complies with health regulations to minimise the risks to your health.
Body piercing is popular for both men and women. While it is often associated with young people, body piercing has been going on for thousands of years in different parts of the world. In recent years, it has become a popular alternative to more permanent forms of body modification, such as tattoos.
Most people are familiar with ear lobe piercing. Other body parts that can be pierced include the upper ears, nose, lips, cheeks, nipples, navel, tongue, eyebrow and genitals. Rings, studs, dumbbells and bars are some of the different types of jewellery that can be used.
Poor hygiene and lack of care during or after the piercing procedure can lead to:
- allergic reactions
- nerve damage
- blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis B or C, or HIV.
Piercing yourself or getting a friend to do it is extremely dangerous and is not recommended.
Things to consider before having a piercing
If you are considering getting a body piercing, it is important to have a good think about it before going ahead. Some things to consider include:
- Piercing may be fashionable now, but trends change. How will you feel about the piercing a few years from now?
- Piercing is painful and the site is usually sore for some time afterwards.
- How will your family and friends feel about your piercing and will it affect your relationships?
- Does your school have a policy on body piercing? You may be required to cover or remove facial or tongue piercings during school hours.
- Having a visible body piercing may be an issue for particular workplaces and could affect your employment opportunities. In some industries, an exposed piercing may be a health and safety issue.
- Check with your doctor regarding the possibility of pregnancy, allergies, heart disease, diabetes or skin conditions.
- Before having an oral piercing, ensure your teeth and gums have been examined and cared for by your dentist or other oral healthcare professional.
Laws relating to piercing in Australia
Laws relating to body piercing are different in each state or territory. In some parts of Australia (including Victoria), it is illegal for a piercer to perform ‘intimate’ body piercing on anyone under the age of 18 years, whether or not consent has been given. This includes piercing of the genitalia, anal region, perineum or nipples.
In Victoria, it is also illegal for a body piercer to perform body piercing on a person under 16 years of age, without obtaining written consent from:
- the parent or guardian of the person to be pierced
- the person to be pierced, if they are over 10 years of age and have the capacity to consent.
Choosing a piercing provider
Choose an experienced piercing provider whose premises are registered with their local council. Make sure the tattoo parlour you choose looks clean, safe and professional. Check that the provider uses new, sterile equipment for each client or thoroughly cleans and disinfects their equipment before use by putting it through an autoclave steriliser. If the premises look dodgy, trust your judgement and keep away.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the piercer’s experience and procedures. If they do not answer your questions, or you are not satisfied or comfortable with them, do not feel pressured – take your business elsewhere.
Use a registered piercing provider
Choose a piercing shop that is registered with their local council. A certificate of registration should be made available for you to see. To comply with health regulations:
- The shop must be kept clean and hygienic.
- Instruments, needles and jewellery must be sterile at the time of use.
- The operator should not have exposed cuts or wounds and their clothes must be clean.
- The proprietor or operator must provide you with health information before any procedure takes place.
What to look for in a piercing provider
The ideal piercing shop will have:
- good ventilation and lighting
- a separate area set aside for the cleaning, disinfection and sterilisation of instruments
- benches, floors, shelving and furniture that can easily be kept clean – items that may need to be touched (such as spray and ink bottles) should be covered with single-use plastic bags so that only the nozzles are exposed
- a hand washbasin
- single-use antiseptic wipes that are stored where they cannot become contaminated
- sterilised needles safely contained where they cannot become contaminated.
Procedure for piercing
When piercing your body, the operator should:
- wash their hands at the beginning and end of the procedure and whenever they take a break during the procedure – for example, when answering the phone
- clean and disinfect your skin thoroughly before and after the procedure
- wear single-use disposable gloves on both hands throughout the procedure
- use sterile equipment
- never smoke, drink or eat while conducting the procedure
- provide you with information about how to care for your piercing before the procedure.
Piercing equipment must be sterilised
The piercer should be able to explain to you how the equipment is sterilised and ideally should have an autoclave steriliser on the premises. Autoclaves use steam and pressure to kill infectious organisms.
To make sure equipment is correctly sterilised and to avoid infection:
- All jewellery, needles and instruments must be thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and sterilised before they are used.
- Reusable instruments should only be used if the shop has its own steriliser or has a system in place for off-site sterilisation. Once sterilised, they must be replaced if they are accidentally touched or contaminated in any other way. Sterility must be maintained at all times.
- Instruments, needles and jewellery should be sealed in autoclave pouches before autoclaving and remain sealed until needed.
- It is even safer if operators use pre-sterilised, single-use needles and instruments. These must be disposed of into a sharps container, out of reach of children.
- Jewellery composed of surgical steel and gold are the best metals as they can be easily sterilised.
Preventing allergic reactions to piercing
If you are prone to allergic reactions or suffer from eczema or dermatitis, you should ask for jewellery that doesn’t contain nickel.
Preventing piercing cross-contamination
Gloves must not be reused. If the operator is interrupted during the piercing procedure (for example, to answer the phone) they must first remove their gloves and wash their hands. Before recommencing the procedure, they must rewash their hands and put on new gloves.
Skin to be pierced must be clean and free from infection. Instruments can become contaminated with blood and must be properly cleaned and sterilised between clients. The operator should at all times comply with health regulations to avoid the risk of spreading infection.
After a piercing procedure
After piercing your body, the operator should:
- clean your skin with an anti-bacterial disinfectant, using pre-dispensed cleaning solution and single-use wipes
- remove their gloves, wash and pat dry their hands, then re-glove using new disposable gloves
- apply antiseptic cream from a single-use container to the treated area of skin and cover the site with a sterile dressing.
Caring for your piercing and avoiding infection
How long your piercing takes to heal depends on where it is, the technique used, the quality of the jewellery, how you look after it and your body’s own healing ability. Healing time can vary from around two weeks to six or nine months.
The operator should give you detailed information about how to care for your piercing at home. Follow their advice to avoid complications and seek advice if you experience any problems.
Some suggestions to care for your body piercing include:
- Keep the piercing as dry as possible.
- Don’t touch or turn the jewellery unnecessarily and always wash your hands before touching the piercing.
- Do not share jewellery with friends.
- Don’t remove the jewellery before the wound has fully healed.
- Do not remove the scab as this protects the piercing from infection.
- Use an antibacterial liquid soap on the piercing site when you’re showering or bathing.
- Use a tissue or cotton bud to dry the piercing after a shower or bath. Do not use a towel or face washer.
- Do not use any alcohol-based cleaning solutions, tea tree oil, hydrogen peroxide, skin cleansers, antiseptic solutions or cream. These can dry out the skin and can sometimes result in prolonged healing times.
- Avoid swimming until the piercing has healed as water can pose a risk of infection.
- Keep jewellery in place and the piercing intact by covering it with sticking plaster when exercising or sleeping (if required).
Caring for your oral piercing
Oral piercings can take up to two months to heal. Because your mouth is home to millions of breeding bacteria, it is vital to care for your mouth carefully during this period by:
- not smoking
- brushing your teeth twice a day, and rinsing frequently with warm salty water or an antibacterial mouth rinse
- maintaining a soft diet and avoiding alcohol and spicy foods.
Complications of piercings
Infection and other complications can occur during the procedure or if the piercing isn’t cared for properly afterwards. General complications may include:
- increased pain, redness, swelling, irritation or itchiness around the piercing site
- thick infected discharge from the piercing site – this may be yellow, green or grey and may have an unusual odour
- problems with healing or scarring
- excessive bleeding – this requires prompt medical attention
- rejection and migration – the body responds as if the piercing is a foreign object and causes it to move away from its original position. This is more likely if the piercing is not in the right place or the jewellery is the wrong metal or gauge
- an abscess (a collection of pus) beneath the skin
- blood poisoning, if infection isn’t treated early
- serious infectious diseases, such as hepatitis B and C, or HIV.
Consult your doctor and notify the operator if you have any other concerns about the procedure.
Complications of oral piercing
Some of the risks and complications from oral piercings include:
- Infections – piercing the mouth creates a wound that is at risk of infection from the millions of bacteria normally found in the mouth
- Prolonged bleeding or nerve damage – if a blood vessel is punctured during the piercing procedure, the bleeding can be difficult to control. Also, numbness (loss of sensation) or ongoing pain (neuralgia) can occur if nerves are damaged
- Pain and swelling – pain and swelling are common side effects, but in some cases, tongue swelling following piercing can be so severe that it can even block the airway and make breathing difficult
- Blood-borne diseases – oral piercings are a potential risk factor for the transmission of herpes simplex virus and hepatitis B, C, D and G.
- Endocarditis – because a wound is created by the oral piercing, there's a chance that oral bacteria could enter the bloodstream and travel to the heart. In certain susceptible people, this could result in an inflammation of the heart or its valves.
- Gum disease – people with oral piercings have a greater risk of gum disease than those without oral piercings. The jewellery can injure soft gum tissue, causing it to recede. This not only looks unattractive, but leaves the tooth root more vulnerable to decay.
- Damage to teeth – teeth that come into contact with mouth jewellery can chip or crack. Teeth with fillings or crowns can also be damaged.
- Difficulties with normal oral function – tongue piercing can result in difficulty chewing and swallowing food, and speaking clearly. The jewellery can stimulate excessive production of saliva and taste can also be altered.
- Jewellery aspiration – loose jewellery is a choking hazard and, if swallowed or inhaled, could even result in internal injuries.
Complications of other piercing sites
Some complications are associated with other piercing sites. These may include:
- Navel piercing – severe infection, if the umbilicus is pierced
- Nipple piercing – difficulty breastfeeding, an infected nipple (which in women can quickly travel through the milk ducts and into the lymph nodes under the arm) or the growth of a cyst inside the nipple. Irritation or trauma may mean a woman with a nipple-pierced breast may be more likely to experience infant attachment problems or blocked ducts
- Genital piercing – increased risk of sexually transmissible infections (STIs) due to condom damage and because the piercing can be a point for an infection to enter the body.
People who should avoid piercings
People who should avoid body piercing include those who have a higher risk of infection or complications due to:
- some medications – such as anticoagulant drugs, immunosuppressive medications and some corticosteroids
- chemotherapy – which reduces your immunity and makes you more susceptible to infection
- breast implants – in the case of nipple piercing, particularly those implants located in front of the chest muscle
- certain disorders – including heart valve disease, rheumatic fever and skin infections.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- An experienced body piercer whose premises is registered with their local council
- Your local council
- Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Unit, Department of Health Victoria Tel. 1300 651 160
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
Things to remember
- Choose an experienced piercer whose premises are registered with their local council.
- Only sterilised needles, instruments and jewellery should be used.
- The provider must give you detailed information about how to care for your piercing before the procedure.
- Care for your body piercing while the site heals. Regularly bathe the site with antibacterial soap and only handle the piercing when necessary.
- If you experience any pain, swelling, inflammation or yellow pus, seek medical advice immediately.
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Last reviewed: March 2014
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