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Q: My daughter just got her nipples pierced. Should I (or she) be worried about any related health risks? She didn't ask for my advice before getting it done, but may want it if there are complications.
A: Your daughter is one of many, as nipple piercing has become increasingly popular, especially among adolescents. I'm going to give you all the possible risks and side effects, but that doesn’t mean that your daughter will experience all, or any, of these.
Potential risks include infections (or even breast abscess formation), nerve damage, bleeding, hematoma (a blood-filled cyst), allergic reactions, nipple cysts, and keloid scarring (raised, red scarring). Unfortunately, nipple piercing is also associated with hepatitis B and hepatitis C infection, and even HIV. The latter, thankfully, are rare.
I've also seen some young women who were very concerned that they were developing breast cancer years after getting their nipples pierced, when indeed what they had was a reaction to the metal, which caused the surrounding tissue to become hardened.
Nipples take longer to heal from a piercing than do piercings in other parts of the body. “Body Piercing: A Guide for Teens” (released by The Center for Young Women's Health, Children's Hospital Boston) says it takes three to six months for the nipple to heal. On the other hand, an earlobe takes six to eight weeks to heal, a nostril takes two to four months, the tongue, four weeks, the eyebrow six to eight weeks, and female genitalia (this usually means the labia), four to 10 weeks. It takes much longer for the navel: four months to one year, ear cartilage: four months to one year, and nasal septum: six to eight months to heal.
I would advise anyone who has had her (or his) nipple pierced, to get screened for hepatitis B and C and HIV. Also, if I have a young patient who wants to get her nipples pierced despite the above mentioned warnings, I would encourage her to first be immunized against hepatitis B and tetanus if she hasn't already had these shots. If a bacterial infection does develop, the current recommendation includes the use of antibiotics and removal of the nipple ring.
Finally, nipple piercing rarely affects a woman's ability to breastfeed. But if your daughter has a baby in the future and wants to breastfeed, if she hasn’t removed the nipple piercing by then, she will need to do so.
Dr. Reichman’s Bottom Line: If you're getting your nipples pierced, you should be counseled on potential complications related to the piercing and get checked for subsequent complications, especially infections.
Dr. Judith Reichman, the “Today” show's medical contributor on women's health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You will find many answers to your questions in her latest book, "Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You," which is now available in paperback. It is published by William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins.
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.