Monday, July 28, 2014
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Teens' body piercings may be beautiful, but are they safe?

Here's what you should know about body piercings and the health risks involved with getting them.

Teens’ body piercings may be beautiful, but are they safe?

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Ears, noses and other body parts have been pierced since ancient times, according to historical records.  Talk about style making a comeback! Today, up to half of teens have a piercing other than an earlobe.

Reality is, when it comes to piercings, parents may not have the biggest influence. As the late humorist, Erma Bombeck wrote, “When your mother asks, 'Do you want a piece of advice?' it is a mere formality. It doesn't matter if you answer yes or no. You're going to get it anyway.”

With piercings, whether they “get it anyway” depends largely on their friends. It seems that teens’ friends influence their body piercing decisions more than other people, including parents.

What are they piercing? Earlobes are clearly the frontrunner for 83% of Americans, according to Statistic Brain. The study, which also looked at body piercing trends in the U.K., found that the navel is another popular location for females (33%) while the nipples, eyebrows and other parts of the ears are other popular locations for males(about 17-18% for each of these locations).

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In the United States, can a teenager under the age of 18 years old, a minor by the law, unaccompanied by his or her parent, walk right into a piercing studio and undergo a piercing procedure? That’s a complicated question! The answer is probably “no,” but it depends on the state. At least 38 states have laws prohibiting minors from getting piercings without parental permission. New Jersey and Delaware require written parental consent, while Pennsylvania requires a parent to be present.

How is a body piercing done? Piercings can be placed in almost any body part, using a variety of procedures, and with different tools, including:

  • Special piercing needles: Jewelry is pushed through an opening made by the needle.
  • Dermal punch: Jewelry is placed in an opening made by a tool that removes a circular area of tissue.
  • Ear gauging: A small hole is gradually stretched over four to six weeks using increasingly larger items, such as plugs, tunnels or hollow jewelry.

When it comes to body piercings, some jewelry is better than others. Some metals for piercings are better choices than others, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.  Usually safe and recommended are metals that are made of surgical-grade stainless steel, titanium, 14- or 18-karat yellow gold, or niobium. Not recommended because of frequent allergic reactions are metals that contain nickel, cobalt or white gold.

Location, location, location! The healing time required for a body piercing varies according to body location. Our own blood supply to the site helps in the healing process. The tongue, for instance, with its rich blood supply, may take only a month to heal whereas ear cartilage, with its limited blood supply, may take many months.

Consider the risks. Among people who get a piercing other than the earlobe, about one third  end up having a complication. Specific risks include:

Consider the less obvious risks. Lip or tongue jewelry can cause oral trauma, including recession of the gums, damage to the enamel, wearing down of the teeth, dental chips, and teeth fractures. Researchers have also found that, in some cases, the jaw bone may be affected requiring oral surgery to preserve the teeth.

For certain individuals, piercings may need to be avoided altogether. For example, those prone to keloid formation should probably not get piercings; keloids are overgrowths of fibrous tissue or scars that can occur in some people after even minor trauma to the skin. Treatment options for keloids include surgical excision, corticosteroid injections, cryosurgery (“freezing”), pressure dressings, radiation and laser therapy. In other words, no small deal.  If your teen has a chronic medical condition or takes daily medication, it is important to check with your teen’s doctor before getting a piercing.

My advice: Bring piercings up for discussion with your teen ... the kind of discussion that has give and take, possible compromising, and hopefully a mutually happy ending. If a piercing is in your teen’s future:

  • Be at the appointment for the very reason that your teen needs you there...not just because it’s the law.
  • Help your teen to get it done safely by a piercing professional.

P.S. After-care is important in the healing of the piercing, so please make sure that your teen is following the after-care instructions.


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Rima Himelstein, M.D. Crozer-Keystone Health System
About this blog
The Healthy Kids blog is your window into the latest news, research and advice around children's health. Learn more about our growing list of contributors here.

If you have questions about your child's health, ask them here.

Anna Nguyen Healthy Kids blog Editor
Stephen Aronoff, M.D., M.B.A. Temple University Hospital
Peter Bidey, D.O. Medical Director of Family Medicine at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Christopher C. Chang, M.D., Ph.D Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Jefferson Medical Colg
Mario Cruz, M.D. St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, Drexel University College of Medicine
Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, Ph.D. Lead Psychologist - The Anxiety Behaviors Clinic, CHOP
Gary A. Emmett, M.D. Director of Hospital Pediatrics at TJU Hospital & Pediatrics Professor at Thomas Jefferson Univ.
Lauren Falini Bariatric exercise physiologist, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children
Hazel Guinto-Ocampo, M.D. Nemours duPont Pediatrics/Bryn Mawr Hospital
Rima Himelstein, M.D. Crozer-Keystone Health System
Jessica Kendorski, PhD, NCSP, BCBA-D Associate Professor in School Psychology/Applied Behavior Analysis at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Anita Kulick President & CEO, Educating Communities for Parenting
Janet Rosenzweig, MS, PhD, MPA VP for Programs & Research for Prevent Child Abuse America
Beth Wallace Smith, R.D. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
W. Douglas Tynan, Ph.D. Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Jefferson Medical Colg
Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D., Ph.D Scientific Director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention
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