What Is Nipple Piercing?
In the Western world, only the ears used to be pierced. The last 15 years, however, have seen an increase in the lifestyle and fashion trend of piercing parts of the body other than the earlobes. Nipples are among the locations chosen to be pierced, by both females and males. Anyone who is considering having their nipples pierced should make him- or herself fully aware of its risks and possible side effects before making a decision.
Reasons Why People Have It Done
A nipple ring is a ring or barrel present horizontally at the base of the nipple. In some places in Africa, nipple piercing is done as a form of initiation, or has some ritual or social meaning. Below are some of the reasons people in the West have gone for nipple piercing:
- The visual effect has an aesthetic appeal for the people who have it done.
- The nipple ring or jewelry is easily concealed. It gives some the feeling of having a sexy secret.
- It signals either trendiness, unconventionality, or sexuality, and therefore also youth.
- It is thought to be sexually stimulating.
- It increases the size of small nipples.
One should choose a piercing salon with a reputation for having high standards of hygiene in terms of environment and practices. An unsterile environment increases the risk of bacteria getting introduced into the piercing site. Unhygienic practices such as reusing equipment, not following proper hand washing and gloving techniques, and inadequate disinfection of the skin to be pierced can introduce bacteria into the piercing and cause infection.
After the nipples are pierced and while the piercings are healing, they should be properly cared for or the chances of infection will increase. Constant fondling or touching the area nipple ring has been found to be one of the major causes of infection. Touching or playing with the piercing may cause bacteria to get introduced into that site. Infection can also be introduced by bodily fluids such as saliva.
On the average, a nipple piercing takes 3 to 6 months to heal, but sometimes can take as long as a year. Due to differences in tissue composition and hormones, men's nipples heal faster than those of women. There have been some cases where women have complained of problems in the healing process during their menstrual period.
Nipple piercing, like any other piercing, is not dangerous, but complications may arise if proper care is not taken.
How Is It Done?
Nipple piercing is the most painful type of body piercing. If one chooses to have their nipples pierced, one should go to an experienced piercer at a well-reputed piercing salon.
The piercer first marks the entry and exit points on the raised part of the nipple with a marker. Piercing can be done horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. After marking the two points, the piercer cleans the area of the nipple to be pierced with an antiseptic, and places a tight clamp on the nipple. A sterile special needle called a cannula is used to pierce the nipple and introduce the jewelry. Usually, a person to be pierced is told to take three deep breaths, and the piercer puts the needle through on the person's third exhale.
A nipple's skin is connected to a system of ducts. Nipple piercing punctures this sensitive skin. Hence, the procedure can be risky. Piercing the nipple cuts the body's first line of defense, which is the skin. The risk of complications is high due to the close contact between the foreign object and the complex structures within the breast.
A certain amount of risk is present with every piercing. However, the likelihood of complications will depend on how and where the piercing is done, and whether the person pierced has any sensitivity or allergy to the metal equipment or jewelry.
Complications include allergic reactions, infections, and loss of sensation in the nipple. Loss of sensation affects breastfeeding.
The risk of complications does not disappear in days or weeks, but remains in the long term. The following complications may occur:
- Nerve damage
- Keloid formation
- Trouble breastfeeding
- Trouble with other medical procedures
It is common to have a localized infection, but there are chances that this infection may spread beyond the nipple and toward the heart. This rarely happens, but if it does, the infection is severe. It becomes a systemic infection, which includes the following:
- Infection in the bloodstream
- People with a history of abnormal heart structure may develop endocarditis, which is infection of the heart valves.
The following complications are also associated with nipple piercing:
In order to force a nipple ring though the nipple tissue, a piercing gun is used or a channel is created using a needle. In both methods, a metal foreign object is introduced into the skin. This can increase the chances of a viral infection. If the equipment used for piercing is infected, it can transmit diseases such as hepatitis C or even HIV. Before you go for this procedure, speak with your doctor about what you can do to protect yourself from any infection and the precautions you need to take. After the piercing, watch for any changes that may occur in the nipple tissue.
- Contact Dermatitis
If a metal to which you are allergic or sensitive is introduced into your bodily tissue, chances are you will develop a rash. This is called contact dermatitis. After piercing, contact dermatitis may not appear until days or weeks later, and once it appears, it does not go away even after the nipple ring is removed. Many people mistake this rash for an infection, since the skin becomes red and irritated in dermatitis as with an infection. Contact your doctor to get a correct diagnosis. If your doctor diagnoses contact dermatitis, remove the nipple ring immediately. Treat the area of the rash with the cortisone cream that your doctor has prescribed. Until you are sure what type of metal will not cause an allergic reaction, do not wear a nipple ring again.
- Breast cellulitis
When bacteria are introduced into the area that has been pierced, an infection called breast cellulitis can result. Left untreated, breast cellulitis will develop into an abscess and may also cause fever. The doctor will suggest antibiotic treatment. If this treatment option fails, the abscess needs to be surgically removed--the surgeon makes an incision across the main part of the abscess and the pus is drained out of the abscess.
- Breastfeeding complications
Generally, in nipple piercing, a needle is used to create a channel. This channel may get infected if, while a female is breastfeeding, the channel does not drain properly. In order to avoid this complication, remove the nipple ring when breastfeeding. If you choose not to remove the nipple ring, at least make sure that it is fastened securely before you breastfeed, to prevent it from coming loose and being swallowed by and choking your breastfeeding child. Be aware that milk may squirt out of the channels as well when you are lactating or breastfeeding.
- Nerve damage
When the needle is inserted through the nipples, some nerves located in that area may get damaged. This may lead to partial or complete loss of sensation.
- Breast abscess
Nipple piercing increases the chances of recurrent abscesses on the nipples. These bumps may appear at the piercing site even years after the piercing was done.
- Infected oil gland
A white substance may start to develop underneath a small sore. This is a sign that you have an infected oil gland in your nipple. If you pop the white substance-filled bump, pus will ooze out of the infected oil gland. If it happens only once, there is usually nothing to worry about. But if the white spot comes back, you should have a doctor treat it.
- Milk blister
A small pimple may develop in the skin below the nipple or on the areola due to trapped milk. A milk blister is painful and characterized by a yellow sore.
Pimples are triggered by acne. If the nipple's pores gets clogged with dirt, oil, and dead cells, a pimple develops. It has been found that in a majority of people, pimples develop on the nipple due to acne.
After nipple piercing, the body tends to secrete lymph at the site of the piercing. This is a very common side effect. It usually comes out in the form of white, yellow, or green pus.
For many days, the area may stay sore and red. Sometimes, the redness persists for weeks or even months. This is also a normal side effect, but if the redness is extreme, it might indicate an infection.
An infection may develop after you have your nipples pierced. The signs of infection include heat, swelling, extreme redness, and red or green lymph. You have to have the infection treated by a doctor. The healing process for a nipple piercing takes some time, and at any time during the healing process, infection is highly possible. Other possible side effects are cysts, abscesses, and hematoma.
At the piercing site, blood-filled cysts may form. This is one of the most severe side effects. Immediate medical attention is required and the fluid in the cysts needs to be drained.
- Keloid scarring
At the piercing site, permanent scar tissue may form. This is called keloid scarring. Keloids need to be removed surgically since they do not shrink on their own. It is a long term effect. Breastfeeding becomes a problem. Keloid scarring blocks the milk ducts in the breast and affects breastfeeding.
Rejection may occur due to an allergic reaction to the metal. It may also occur because not enough skin was pierced to hold the jewelry. In such a case, rejection may occur. The skin behind the piercing will heal and force the piercing out of its site.
- Allergic reactions
In nipple piercing, allergic reactions to the jewelry or the metal accessory used is quite common. The skin to be pierced is very sensitive and hence may react to some metals. Years after the piercing, some women may find that the nipples have hardened. Also, if the nipple piercing is not done properly, the nerves in that area may get damaged. If you have your nipples pierced just once, this side effect can be avoided. Consult your doctor if you experience any symptoms after nipple piercing.
Preventing Complications and Side Effects
- Tools and utensils used for piercing should be clean and sterile.
- The person doing the procedure should wear disposable gloves so that any infection is not passed on.
- The jewelry also should be sterilized.
- Look for signs of infection such as swelling, redness, discharge, pain, and itching.
The pros and cons can be weighed in order to understand the whether nipple piercing is safe or not;
- Pros - There are people who find it visually appealing. Stimulation at the site increases because of the presence of jewelry. A constant heartbeat can be felt and the sensitivity of the area is increased. Piercing also prevents the inverted nipples and increases their size. This is beneficial for those breastfeeding.
- Cons - The healing process takes time. Pain can last even after a year after piercing. Compared to belly button piercing and ear piercing, nipple piercing requires more maintenance and cleaning. When nursing, the nipple ring or jewelry needs to be removed. The nipple piercing requires a strict cleaning routine. If infection occurs, it can become severe. This is a problem, especially for breastfeeding mothers.
To help treat an infection, do the following:
- Daily cleaning - Wash your hands and clean the piercing site. Use soap meant for sensitive areas as it is less likely to irritate the skin.
- Sea salt soak - Use a small cup to soak the nipple in water mixed with sea salt for 2-3 minutes, several times in a day. Then rinse and pat dry.
- Avoid antibiotic creams. These can make the infection worse by trapping the bacteria. Do not use over-the-counter antibiotic creams as these can trap the bacteria and worsen the infection. Use only topical antibiotic creams prescribed by your doctor.
- Aftercare - It is important to take care of the nipple piercing especially if it is the first time the nipple was pierced. Meticulously follow the instructions given by piercer.
- If proper care is taken during the healing process, nipple piercing is not a dangerous procedure. Improper care after the piercing increases the chances of infection.
- The chances of infection increase if the piercing is frequently touched.
- Infections may increase with time. A localized infection may worsen and spread.