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When Body Piercings Go Bad

Thinking about getting a body piercing? Who hasn't, right?

Well, one thing to consider is that about 20 percent of the time there are complications from the procedure, such as infection or scarring, a fresh review of the medical literature finds.

Piercings of the bellybutton and upper ear are especially prone to problems.

"I think piercing can be quite dangerous, actually," says Anne Laumann, a professor of dermatology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, who was a co-author of the review. "I would not encourage it in a teenager."

Indeed, a 20 percent complication rate with a medical procedure would make many patients think twice.

But given the popularity of piercing, that's a message that might not keep a young person from putting metal to flesh. So Laumann hopes that people contemplating piercings will become educated enough on the health issues that they can avoid the most common problems.

Prevention is paramount. And enemy No. 1 is infection. "You've got an open wound," Laumann told Shots. "You've got germs on your skin, like we all do. That's where the problem comes."

Most piercing-related infections are local and get better with time, the analysis found. Still, it's important to make sure that the person doing the piercing uses sterile equipment and cleans the piercing site, Laumann says. Then it's up to the piercee to keep the site clean.

Bellybutton piercings can take a year to heal, according to the analysis, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. Maybe that's why bellybutton piercings are particularly prone to infection. "Is it terrible? It's not terrible," Laumann asks. "Is it comfortable? It's not comfortable."

The study recommends that during that healing period, owners of navel piercing refrain from sit-ups, and cover the area during exercise or intimate relations to reduce risk.

She's also down on piercing the upper ear, because it's easy for the cartilage there to get infected. That can lead to necrosis, or death, of the cartilage, and collapse of the upper ear. Piercing the earlobe doesn't cause those problems, Laumann says, because there's no cartilage involved.

OK, what else should you know about? Scarring, for one. Some people form large, disfiguring keloid scars after piercing. (The nasty lump on the earlobe in this slide show of problems is a piercing-caused keloid.) Permanent hole marks or bumps are more typical.

Then there's the fact that piercing jewelry needs to be removed before medical procedures, playing contact sports, and other activities. Removing the jewelry frequently for those reasons, or to hide it from bosses or relatives, can slow healing and increase infection risk. When it comes to nipple piercings, the study reports dryly, "The recommendation is to remove jewelry before breastfeeding."

Despite her warnings, Laumann is philosophical about the fact that the fad for piercing shows no sign of abating. And her paper suggests that body piercers take a careful history of their customers to identify factors, such as some allergies, that may predispose someone to have complications.

And she does see some positive applications. Right now she's working on using tongue piercing jewelry to help quadriplegics drive wheelchairs and computer cursors.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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