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Body piercing

Introduction

If you decide to have a body piercing, make sure you find a reputable, licensed body piercing shop or piercer.

Piercing of the ears, nose, belly button and tongue are especially popular among teenagers and young adults. They are all fairly safe procedures, as long as they're performed by a licensed specialist and you take care not to get the hole infected.

Finding an approved piercer

Some local councils keep registers of approved piercers who have passed hygiene and safety standards set out by the council, and who are regularly inspected by health and safety officers.

Contact your local borough, or city or county council for further information.

If you've already found a body piercing shop, take a look around before you go ahead with the piercing. Check for any potential health risks. You should be able to answer 'yes' to all the questions on our safety checklist

How body piercing is carried out

The skin is disinfected with a 70% alcohol solution and allowed to dry before it is pierced, using sterile piercing equipment.

Ear piercing is normally done with a piercing gun, by either a jeweller or a professional body piercer. All other types of piercing must be carried out using a hollow needle, which is pushed through the skin and tissue of the body part. You'll normally feel a quick, sharp sting while the skin is being pierced.

Read more about how piercings are carried out.

Avoiding infection

Follow the specialist's advice for keeping your skin dry and avoiding infection after you've had your piercing. Read our section on Body piercing - self care for more information on preventing and treating infection. 

Healing times

Healing times for the most common body piercings are as follows:

  • earlobe – six weeks
  • top of the ear – at least three to four months
  • belly button – up to a year
  • tongue – one to two months
  • nose – two to three months

Possible risks

Bacterial infection is the main risk associated with body piercing. Sometimes an abscess (build-up of pus) forms around the piercing site, which can develop into blood poisoning or toxic shock syndrome if left untreated. This can be very serious.

Tongue piercings carry a higher risk of bacterial infection because of the high number of bacteria already present inside the mouth.

Read more about the risks of different types of body piercing.

All professional body piercers in the UK use sterile instruments, so it's rare to catch conditions such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS through body piercing.

Licence conditions regarding age

For most body piercings, there's no legal age restriction. However, children aged under 16 are not allowed to have their genitals or nipples pierced.

Local councils can use their licensing powers to impose their own age restrictions for body piercings carried out in their area. For example, some councils may only allow ear, nose and belly button piercings in teenagers over 16.

You may need to show proof of ID, and children under 16 may need to have a parent or guardian with them.

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Safety

A few days before having your piercing, visit the shop to check for any potential health risks.

Make sure you can answer 'yes' to the following questions before going ahead:

  • Do they use a clean pair of disposable surgical gloves for each customer?
  • Do they wash their hands regularly and use disposable paper towels to dry them?
  • Is the shop clean, with wipe-clean surfaces throughout (including the floor)?
  • Do they use single-use needles and discard them after each piercing?
  • Are instruments kept in sealed packaging ready for use, or in an autoclave (steriliser) until needed?
  • Have the earrings been pre-sterilised?
  • If the piercer is piercing just one ear, will they take the earring from an unopened, presterilised pack of two (rather than using a loose earring left over from a previous piercing)?
  • Is the piercer wearing clean, practical clothing, with long hair tied back?
  • Have they covered any cuts or wounds on their hands with waterproof dressings?
  • Is the jewellery used appropriate for the type of piercing?
  • Is it made of non-nickel metal?
  • Does the piercer have a clear policy regarding age restrictions and parental consent?
  • Is the piercing area a no-smoking zone?
  • Are animals kept well away from the piercing area?

If you're taking medication, have heart disease or any other medical condition and are in doubt, talk to your GP about the risks before getting a piercing.

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Risks

Bacterial infection is the main risk associated with body piercings.

Sometimes, an abscess (build-up of pus) forms around the piercing site. If left untreated, this has the potential to develop into blood poisoning or toxic shock syndrome, which can be very serious.

Tongue piercings carry a higher risk of bacterial infection because of the high number of bacteria already present inside the mouth.

Earlobe piercings are generally safe.

Other general risks

Other possible problems that come with body piercing are:

  • Bleeding and blood loss, especially in areas of the body with a lot of blood vessels, such as the tongue.
  • Swelling of the skin around the piercing.
  • Scarring and the formation of keloid (a type of oversized scar). Tell your body piercer if you know that your skin has a tendency to form keloid scars.

Specific risks

Any piercing that interferes with the normal functioning of the body carries a higher risk. Specific piercings each present their own risks. For example:

  • Oral (tongue) piercings can cause speech impediments and chipped teeth if the jewellery wears away tooth enamel. There's also a higher risk of bleeding, and the risk that your airways will become blocked.
  • Genital piercings can interfere with the functions of the genitals, sometimes making sex and urination difficult and painful. This is particularly common with piercings on and around the penis.
  • Ear cartilage piercings (at the top of the ear) are riskier than earlobe piercings. If the site becomes infected, you may develop a painful abscess. This is because the skin is very close to the underlying cartilage and pus can become trapped. Antibiotics do not successfully treat this problem. Surgery is usually required to remove the affected cartilage. This can lead to a deformed ear.
  • Nose piercings are riskier than earlobe piercings as the inner surface of the nose (which can't be disinfected) holds bacteria that can cause infection. 

Self-piercing

Self-piercing is very dangerous as it's unlikely that you'll have the correct equipment, training or hygiene procedures to reduce the risk of infection or scarring.

Serious complications that result in going to hospital are more likely to occur with piercings done by a non-specialist. Always seek a specialist's help if you're considering a body piercing.

Transmittable diseases

All professional body piercers in the UK use sterile instruments, so it's rare to catch conditions such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS through body piercing.

However, if you're somewhere abroad where hygiene standards are poorer, you're at risk of infection from hepatitis (B or C) or HIV, which can be caught from dirty needles. Hepatitis is known for its resilience. Some strains can live for several months on dirty instruments in normal room temperatures.

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How is it performed?

Before carrying out a body piercing, the piercer will explain to you any complications that may arise.

You'll usually need to sign a consent form to confirm that you wish to go ahead. Children under 16 may need to have a parent or guardian with them.

The skin is disinfected with a 70% alcohol solution and allowed to dry before it's pierced. The piercing equipment must be sterile.

Ear piercing

A hole is pierced through the fatty tissue of the earlobe, and an earring is inserted. Ear piercing is normally done with a piercing gun, either by a jeweller or a professional body piercer. Piercing with a gun should only be carried out on the ears, and not on any other part of the body.

Some piercing guns are disposable. Others have disposable cartridges to help ensure that the piercing is clean and sterile. If you don't want your ears to be pierced with a piercing gun, you can go to a professional piercer who can pierce ears using a sterilised hollow needle.

However you choose to have your ears pierced, make sure it happens in a clean, no-smoking zone. The person carrying out the piercing should wash their hands first, wear surgical gloves during the process and throw them away straight after use.

If you feel at all unsure about the person who's doing the piercing or where it's being done, go somewhere else.

Other types of piercing

All other types of piercing must be carried out using a hollow needle, which is pushed through the skin and tissue of the body part being pierced. This ensures that there are clear entrance and exit holes. A piece of jewellery, usually a decorative bar or ring, is then pushed through the hole.

Belly button

The piercing is usually made just above the navel. A curved bar with screw-on metal balls on either end is inserted through the hole. A small metal ring fastened with a clip-on ball may also be used.

Special care must be taken with a belly button piercing as this area is difficult to keep clean and dry. You'll need to wash the belly button with soap and water before the piercing. Make sure the piercer cleans the area properly with a 70% alcohol solution.

Afterwards, you should wear any belts well below the area until it's fully healed. Expose it to air as much as possible.

Nose 

A hole is pierced through the skin and cartilage of the nostril. A nose stud (like an earring) is then inserted through the hole.

Tongue

The tongue is clamped to hold it in position while it's pierced. A bar with a screw-on metal ball at each end is inserted through the hole.

Nipple

The piercing is normally made through the end of the nipple. A thin metal ring or straight bar is then inserted.

Is it painful?

Many people claim that body piercing doesn't hurt, or that it only feels like a sharp prick.

In the UK, it's against the law for someone to be given an anaesthetic injection before the piercing process. Use of anaesthetic creams, wipes or sprays is not advised because it increases the risk of infection.

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Self Care

If your body has been professionally pierced following the correct procedures, no specific aftercare is necessary.

Cleaning the piercing site with saline solution increases your risk of infection.

You'll need to keep the piercing dry for three days after the procedure. If you have an ear or facial piercing, having baths rather than showers will help to keep the piercing dry. Lower body piercings are harder to keep dry, so it may be best to sponge-clean your body for the first three days.

Wash your hands with warm water and antibacterial soap before touching or washing your piercing.

Ensure that any clothing and bedding that may come into contact with the area around the piercing is clean.

If you get an infection

If your piercing becomes infected, the surrounding skin may be red and swollen. It will probably hurt when you touch it and may produce a yellow discharge.

If you have a fever or any of the above symptoms, see your GP immediately. A delay in treatment can result in a serious infection.

Leave your jewellery in unless your doctor tells you to take it out. This will ensure proper drainage and prevent an abscess from forming.

In many cases, the infection can be treated without losing the piercing. Minor infections may be treated with antibiotic cream, and a more serious infection may need antibiotic tablets. Your doctor will be able to give you advice about which treatment is best for you.

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