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 complies with health regulations to minimise the risks.
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 infection, allergic reactions, nerve damage or blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis B or C, or HIV. Always choose a piercer whose premises are registered with their local council to minimise the risks.
Piercing yourself or getting a friend to do it is extremely dangerous and is not recommended.
Things to consider before a piercing
If you are thinking about 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 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.
Piercing laws 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.
Go to a registered piercing shop
Choose a piercing shop (or tattoo parlour) 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 is done.
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
- A hand washbasin
- Single-use antiseptic wipes that are stored where they cannot become contaminated
- Sterilised needles safely contained where they cannot become contaminated.
During the piercing procedure
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.
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 and swelling 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.
Particular piercing sites have their own problems
Some complications are associated with particular piercing sites. These may include:
- Mouth/facial piercing – interference with speaking or chewing, mouth irritation or trauma to teeth and gums, nerve damage, potential difficulty breathing due to swelling from insertion of infection.
- 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 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.
Avoiding infection from piercing
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.
Some suggestions to care for your body piercing in the meantime 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).
Piercing should be avoided by some people
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 is registered with their local council.
- 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: June 2011
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Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your qualified health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residence and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a qualified health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.
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