Piercing and Tattoos

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Related to Piercing and Tattoos: Body modification

Piercing and Tattoos



Body piercing and tattoos are a popular form of body art that have been practiced throughout history by various cultures.


Various cultures have embraced adorning their bodies with piercings and tattoos throughout history. In 1992, the 4,000-year-old body of a tattooed man was discovered in a glacier on the Austrian border, and historical research has shown that Egyptians identified tattooing with fertility and nobility in the period from 4000–2000 BC Similar to tattooing, body piercing also has a rich history, which includes being used as a symbol of royalty and courage. In some hunting and gathering societies, body piercing and tattoos have long been used in initiation rites and as socialization/enculturation symbols.
In today's industrialized cultures, tattoos and piercing are a popular art form shared by people of all ages. They also are indicative of a psychology of self-mutilation, defiance, independence, and belonging, as for example in prison or gang cultures.
Popular piercing sites include the ear, nasal septum, eyebrow, tongue, cheek, navel, labia, and penis. Tattoos permanently mark various areas on the body.
Piercing is performed quickly and without anesthesia by either a spring-loaded ear-piercing gun or piercing needles, with the needle diameter varying from six to 18 gauge. The skin is cleaned, then the needle and jewelry are inserted through the tissue in one swift motion. Piercing is typically completed in tattoo or beauty parlors.
Originating from the Tahitian word tattau, meaning "to mark," tattoos are relatively permanent marks or designs on the skin. An electric needle injects colored pigment into small deep holes made in the skin to form the tattoo. Prison tattoo techniques are usually very crude, in marked contrast to the highly skilled art practiced in Japan and also performed in America and Europe. In recent years, the ancient art of Mehndi, or temporary tattooing of the skin with a paste made of henna has become popular America and around the world. Henna is a stain normally made for hair, and therefore exempt from U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation. Although seemingly safe because it does not pierce the skin, henna tattoos using black henna, a paste that contains parahenylenediamine, can actually be dangerous when absorbed into the skin of some people.

Causes and symptoms

While piercing and tattooing are popular, both present definite health risks. Tattoos can lead to the transmission of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis B and C, and theoretically HIV, when proper sterilization and safety procedures are not followed. Black henna tattoos can cause significant allergies and rashes, leading to renal (kidney) failure and even death in those who are sensitive to their ingredients. These types of tattoos have appeared particularly dangerous to young children. Body piercing also presents the risk of chronic infection, scarring, hepatitis B and C, tetanus, and skin allergies to the jewelry that is used. A recent Mayo Clinic study reported that 17% of college students with piercings suffered a medical complication such as infection or tearing. Use of piercing guns and preferences for upper ear piercing have led to increased infections in recent years. The force of the gun's delivery further complicates matters around the delicate cartilage of the upper ear and some people require surgical intervention.
Body piercing and tattooing are unregulated in most United States, but illegal in some. The American Dental Association (ADA) opposes oral (tongue, lip or cheek) piercing, and the American Academy of Dermatology is against all forms of body piercing except ear lobe piercing.


Some of the signs of an infection from either piercing or tattoos are obvious, such as inflammation of the pierced or tattooed area, while the symptoms of hepatitis C, the most common blood-borne infection in the United States, may not be so obvious. Allergic responses to tattoos may occur due to the pigment compounds used, such as oxides of iron, mercury, chromium, cadmium, and cobalt and synthetic organic dyes. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include swelling, redness and severe itching. Symptoms of henna tattoo reactions are an eczema-like rash around the tattoo site. The patch should be tested for reaction severity before it proceeds to anaphylactic shock, or severe allergic reaction.
Most infections from piercing are due to the use of non-sterile techniques. The skin pathogens streptococcus and staphylococcus are most frequently involved in skin infections from piercing. The fleshy tissue around the pierced area may weaken and tear, leading for example, to a badly disfigured earlobe. Other common complications include contact dermatitis and scars. Piercing can result in endocarditis, urethral rupture, and a serious infection of the penis foreskin leading to severe disability or even death.


Treatment of a local infection from piercing includes warm compresses and antibacterial ointment for local infections, to a five-day course of oral antibiotic therapy. If hepatitis B or C is confirmed, a series of diet and lifestyle changes, such as the elimination of alcohol, is recommended to control the disease.
There are four methods to remove tattoos, including: surgical removal that involves cutting the tattoo away; sanding the skin with a wire brush to remove the epidermis and dermis layers in a process called dermabrasion; using a salt solution to soak the tattooed skin (salabrasion); and scarification, removing the tattoo with an acid solution to form a scar in its place. Topical steroids can often treat reactions to henna tattoos, but improvement may take several weeks.


Depending on the type of infection resulting from either piercing or tattoos, the treatment and prognosis vary. Minor infections respond well to antibiotic therapy, while blood borne diseases such as hepatitis B and C cause life-altering results. Disfigurement may or may not be fully correctable by later plastic surgery. Patients particularly sensitive or allergic to the ingredients in black henna may suffer serious consequences, even death, if their reaction progresses. Others may be left with scarring or altered pigmentation along the tattoo design.


The best way to prevent infection from piercing or tattoos is not to get one in the first place. Procedures should be performed in a sterile environment by an experienced professional. The person performing the procedure should remove a new needle from the plastic in front of you and should put on a new pair of sterile gloves. Anyone considering a henna tattoo should require proof from the artists that he or she is using pure, safe brown henna, not the unsafe black henna.
Piercing should be completed with smoothly polished jewelry made of 14 or 18 carat gold, titanium, surgical steel or niobium. An allergic reaction can result with the use of jewelry made of brass plate or containing a nickel alloy. Healing time from a piercing range from six months to two years. A piercing should be completed in a sterile environment that uses every precaution to reduce the risk of infection. Excessive force, such as exerting a strong pull, should never be applied to jewelry inserted into pierced body parts to avoid tearing and injuring the tissues.



Abbasi, Kamran. "Body Piercing." British Medical Journal April 14, 2001: 936.
Brown, Kelli McCormack, Paula Perlmutter, and Robert J.McDermott. "Youth and Tattoos: What School Health Personnel Should Know." Journal of School Health November 2000: 355.
Califano, Julie. "Piercing Peril: Adorning Your Body can Backfire Big Time." Cosmopolitan (April 2003: 112.
Edy, Carolyn. "Body Piercing Woes: One More Reason to Think Twice Before Getting Your Navel Pierced." Yoga Journal June 30, 2000: 36.
"Hazards with Henna Tattoos." Pulse June 23, 2003: 60.
"Perichondritis: A Complication of Piercing Auricular Cartridge." Postgraduate Medical Journal January 2003: 29-31.
Sullivan, Michele G. "Henna Tattoos Tied to Bad Allergic Reactions." Family Practice News May 15, 2003: 16.
Weir, Erica. "Navel Gazing: A Clinical Glimpse at Body Piercing." Canadian Medical Association Journal (March 2001): 864.

Key terms

Endocarditis — Infection of a valve inside the heart.
Hepatitis — Inflammation of the liver.
Socialization — Process by which new members of a social group are integrated in the group.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
It has been suggested that there might be an association between risk behaviours and piercing and tattooing practices.2,4,6,7,10,11 It is for this reason that health professionals must be aware of the issues that are caused by piercing and tattoos, which are fads that are steadily increasing among young people today, and also of their association with risk-taking behaviour.
Another study reported that young people have piercing and tattoos done with sterile or new needles.12 A study22 on adolescents reported that the subjects had their piercings and tattoos executed by professionals, and another study found that 88% of the students had piercings and tattoos done by professionals and that these persons complied with the universal precautions.13
"As piercing and tattoos started to become popular, people needed more," he said.
Modifying the body: piercing and tattoos. Nurs Standard.
Our approach to staff body piercing and tattoos is the same as our approach to eating habits, t-shirt styles, haircuts, and sexual orientation.
Body piercing and tattoos: a survey on young adults' knowledge of the risks and practices in body art.