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Hazards of Body Piercing Procedures

Potential Risks And Hazards Of Body Piercing

When 15-year-old Anna Hartle of Advance, Mo. chose to have her upper ear pierced, her mother, Beverly Rose, had no worries.

"Not only did I never consider it a problem, my friend and I thought it was so cool we considered having it done ourselves," says Rose.

Then, after about a week, it began to swell, and her mom took her to the doctor where she was put on antibiotics. By the next day, the ear was worse and appeared twice its size. A nurse at a blood drive Rose was participating in noticed Anna's ear and urged Rose to take her to the emergency room immediately.

When Piercing Complications Happen

At the emergency room,an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist sent them to Children's Hospital of St. Louis. There, the ENT drained the fluid from Anna's ear to culture the bacteria.

"When they drained Anna's ear, it completely went flat, as if there was no ear there at all," says Rose. "It was really scary."

The culture came back positive for pseudomonas bacteria, which had completely eaten away the cartilage in Anna's ear. She was admitted to the hospital, where she was kept for five days.

Unfortunately, there wasn't anything they could do to make the cartilage come back. Anna still has to have reconstructive surgery to make her ear look normal, but her doctor wants to wait at least a full year after the infection is completely gone.

How Do Piercing Problems Begin?

Dr. Gregory Branham, a professor of otolaryngology at St. Louis University School of Medicine, says the procedure should be kept in perspective, because the majority of people don't have problems, they have definitely seen an increase in cartilage damage due to high ear piercings and to nose piercings.

In most cases, including Anna Hartle's, Dr. Branham believes infections are caused by inadequate sterilization. Most teens get their ears pierced at kiosks or stores in a mall or boutique. Although the employees may be very conscientious, just swabbing the area to be pierced with an antiseptic solution is not enough to kill the bacteria on the skin. When the stud of the earring is shot through the ear, it catches and drags some of that bacterium through the open wound and "seeds" the bacteria in the cartilage. The bacteria then feeds off the cartilage, and the infection simmers until it becomes a full-blown abscess.

Dangers of Lip and Tongue Piercings

Dr. Branham hasn't seen this same level of complication with other types of piercings, such as regular ear lobe piercings, tongue piercings or lower lip piercings, because they involve mostly skin and fatty tissue. Although he does caution that any body piercing carries a certain level of danger from infection. Also, in the case of tongue piercing, the after effects can be severe, such as swelling that lasts for weeks.

In an extremely rare case, Drs. Richard Martinet and Elizabeth Cooney, infectious disease specialists at Yale University, tell of a young woman developing a near-fatal brain abscess that they believe resulted from a tongue piercing. Other dangers of tongue piercing, aside from the initial pain and swelling, are chipped teeth from metal studs and difficulty eating.

How to Avoid Piercing Problems

Although most medical professionals are hoping the growing trend of piercings – especially piercings of unusual body parts – starts to die down, they also suggest that the best place to get a piercing done is the doctor's office. Just wiping down piercing instruments with antiseptic isn't enough. The instruments should be autoclaved and the skin around the piercing professionally sterilized.

After the piercing, handling of the area should be kept to an absolute minimum to alleviate the risk of infection from bacteria on hands. Follow all directions for cleaning, but use sterile gauze or cotton tips. The area should also be watched closely for any sign of infection such as swelling or discharge.

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