Body piercings not always safe

Red Sonia wanted a look to die for -- and she got it.

Sonia, whose real name was Lesley Hovvels, once appeared on British television to show off her more than 100 body piercings.

But the 39-year-old Welsh woman died earlier this year of a massive infection caused by her failure to properly care for the dozens of piercings in her nose, ears, lips and other body parts.

It's an extreme case. But doctors warn that recent medical journals have chronicled hundreds of cases of injury, infection and even death caused by piercings gone bad.

"In many cases, it's safe to say, the guy who cuts your hair has more training than the guy who pierces you," says Dr. Shari Welch, an emergency room physician at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, USA.

"It's pretty scary stuff," says Welch, who recently saw a 19-year-old woman nearly suffocate because emergency room doctors had trouble getting a breathing tube past the piercings on her tongue.

In another incident, a 19-year-old man's urethra was "shredded," Welch says, after a car accident that ripped loose a small ring from his penis.

"For his life, he's going to have trouble urinating," she says. "I'm sure he wasn't thinking of that when he made this fashion choice."

Nobody knows exactly how many people are pierced in the United States, but the number certainly is in the millions -- and growing rapidly, as a look around will tell you.

Piercers often lack training
Yet many piercers are poorly trained or not trained at all, leaving their customers at risk of infection or worse.

"A lot of piercers don't have skill or care, and that's dangerous," says Elayne Angel, a New Orleans piercer and board member of the Association of Professional Piercers. "I see a lot of bad piercing."

"You have to take care in choosing your piercer," Angel says. "Too many people think that, just because somebody is charging them money, that person is a professional."

Sanitation is perhaps the biggest problem. From Welch's review of the medical literature on piercing, she estimates that more than one in five body piercings results in an infection.

Welch also has seen at least one piercing-related death: an 18-year-old woman whose organs shut down from infection 10 days after she got her tongue pierced.

Failure to follow sanitary procedures -- either during the piercing or after -- can lead to staph, strep, tetanus or hepatitis infections, Welch says. Unsanitary piercing also can carry a risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Adding to the problem is the increasing popularity of piercings in areas such as the navel, ear cartilage, tongue and genitals.

Compared to the traditional pierced earlobe, these other areas are more difficult to take care of and more likely to become infected, says Myrna Armstrong, a professor of nursing at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock.

"We did some work with high school students and found a 50 percent rate of infection in navel piercings," Armstrong says. "The problem is, the area is moist, it's irritated by waistbands and it gets fuzzies. And people don't look at it."

As for the increasingly popular genital piercings, Armstrong says there's little medical literature on them.

"Nobody wants to deal with it," she says. "But certainly we know that genital piercings are increasing."

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
27% - 9954 votes
73% - 26313 votes