Piercings: What You Must Know


Bold and captivating, body piercings have long been used as a way of adornment among humans. From chic little ear-pins to attention-grabbing string of earrings, nose rings or tongue pins, more youngsters use body piercings for various reasons, whether as a sign of rebellion, as an art expression or simply to stand out from the crowd.

Before you subject yoursef to this intentional injury, however, it helps to know how to care for the wound after piercing to help the healing process.  Urban Health speaks to Dr Lee Yin Yin, consultant dermatologist from the Sunway Medical Centre, for advice:

UH: Modern ear piercings are done with the gun instead of the conventional piercing pin. What is the difference between them in terms of comfort levels, recovery, hygiene, safety?

DR LEE: Piercing guns are usually made with plastic and cannot be sterilised in an autoclave like the traditional piercing pins. Although it can be wiped with antiseptic solution before and after use, they may not be absolutely sterile. Risk of infection may be higher and recovery may be slower.

On the other hand, the piercing pins are usually for single use and discarded after use.  Generally, the piercing pin is more comfortable, hygienic and safer with shorter recovery time.

UH: What should customers know before getting a piercing?

DR LEE: Before you get a piercing, here are some general tips:

  1. Ensure the centre is established and reliable.
  2. Ensure the centre has professionals who practice strict sterile techniques.
  3. Inform the piercer if you have any medical illnesses, e.g. diabetes, heart problems, or other medical conditions.
  4. Also inform piercer if you are on certain medications, e.g. steroids, blood thinners.

It also helps to know the potential risks of piercings. General complications include allergic reactions, pain, bleeding, embedded rings, infection, scar/keloid formation, traumatic tear, prolonged recovery period, infectious disease transmission e.g. hepatitis, HIV.

If you’re having a piercing at the tongue or any part of the oral cavity, complications include airway compromise, altered eating habits, gingival trauma, hematoma formation, increased salivary flow, infection, injury to salivary glands, loss of taste, permanent numbness, speech impediments, uncontrolled drooling.

UH: Commonly pierced parts are the ear-lobes, belly-button, nostril, even tongue or private parts. Are there certain parts of the body that need special care?

DR LEE: Certain body areas are more vulnerable to infection. For instance with navel piercing, friction from clothing with tight-fitting waist-bands may lead to delayed healing and increased infection rates.

Nasal piercing into the cartilage may lead to significant bleeding, subsequent septal hematoma formation which increases the risk of infection. Other cosmetic deformities  include perichondritis and necrosis of the cartilaginous nasal wall.

Piercing at the tongue is dangerous as this area is more prone to contamination. There are tremendous amount of bacteria in the oral cavity, hence the risk of  infection is very high. In addition, the tongue is a very vascular organ and  there may be massive bleeding from the tongue if the needle puncture a blood vessel. Swelling of the tongue can also affect the airway and a loose ring may cause choking.

The private areas are also common sites of contamination especially for females.

UH: What is the general care for any kind of piercing?

DR LEE: Generally, it is crucial to maintain hygiene. Cleanse the site of piercing daily and wash your hands before and after cleansing.

Do not allow other people to touch the areas of piercing. And avoid touching the piercing constantly. Apply antibiotic ointment after the procedure to reduce the risk of infections.

It is also advisable to avoid using public facilities e.g. swimming pool / hot tub  till the area of piercing is completely healed.

UH: What are the signs of an infection?

DR LEE: Watch out for signs of pain, redness, swelling, discharge, increased warmth, surrounding rash, fever, bad smell at the piercing site.

UH: What should I do if I suspect there’s an infection?

DR LEE: Seek medical attention. You may need to take out the ear piece and start on antibiotics. The infected site may require daily dressing. If the condition is more serious, may require operative drainage of abscess.

UH: Should I remove the ring or stub if it’s painful or itchy? If removed, will the piercing close up?

DR LEE: It is advisable to remove the ring/stub when it is painful or itchy. Some patients develop contact dermatitis to the rings, especially those with nickle content. Pain is one of the signs of infection.

When the piercing is removed, the patency of the piercing may not be maintained. Some centres offer patients plastic channel retainers to maintain the patency of the piercing path.

UH: The site of my piercing smells bad. Why and what should I do?

DR LEE: When there is foul smell from the piercing, it is most likely infected with bacteria. Seek medical attention. It may be necessary to  take out the piercing and start on antibiotics. May require regular  dressing at site of piercing.

How long does it take to heal?

Site of piercing Time to heal
Ear lobe  4 to 8 weeks
Male genitalia 4 to 8 weeks
Female genitalia 2 to 10 weeks
Lip 6 to 8 weeks
Navel Up to 9 months
Tongue 3 to 6 weeks

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