Risks of body piercing 

Bacterial infection is the main risk associated with body piercings.

A build-up of pus (abscess) may form around the piercing site. If left untreated, this may need to be surgically drained and can cause a scar. In some cases, it may develop into blood poisoning (sepsis) or toxic shock syndrome, which can be very serious. Blood poisoning can also occur without an abscess.

Tongue piercings carry a small risk of bacterial infection, despite the high number of bacteria inside the mouth. It would be wise to brush your teeth or cleanse your mouth before getting a tongue piercing. The vein under the front of the tongue can also bleed if the piercing is too close to it.

Earlobe piercings are generally safe, but care must still be taken to keep the piercing clean and dry.

You can reduce your risk of developing an infection by keeping your piercing dry. Before touching the piercing, make sure you wash your hands with soap and water, and dry them with a towel. However, try to avoid touching it if possible – there is no need to turn it.

Read the page on body piercing self care for more information.

Due to registered piercing premises using disposable sterile needles and other equipment, the risk of passing on viruses such as hepatitis or HIV is now almost non-existent.

However, if you're in a country where hygiene standards are poorer, you're at risk of infection from hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV, which can be caught from dirty needles.

Other general risks

Other possible problems that can occur as a result of 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 functions of the body carries a higher risk of causing problems. For example:

  • Tongue (oral) piercings can cause speech impediments and chipped teeth if the jewellery wears away tooth enamel. There's also a higher risk of bleeding and a risk that your airways will become blocked, due to the tongue swelling.
  • Genital piercings can sometimes make 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. They can lead to infection and an abscess developing. This is because the skin is close to the underlying cartilage and pus can become trapped. Antibiotics don’t always successfully treat this problem. Surgery can remove the affected cartilage, but may 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 dangerous, as it's unlikely that you'll have the correct equipment, training or hygiene procedures to reduce the risk of infection or scarring.

Piercings done by a non-specialist are more likely to cause serious complications that can result in a trip to hospital.

Always seek a specialist's help if you're considering a body piercing.

Page last reviewed: 26/01/2015

Next review due: 26/01/2017