Body piercing poses a risk for serious disease. Because it invades subcutaneous areas, piercing has a high potential for infectious complications. Such complications result from introduction of skin or mucous membrane microflora into subcutaneous tissue or from the ongoing presence of colonies of these microflora at the piercing site. Pain, edema, and prolonged bleeding may occur immediately after piercing, and a cyst, scar, or keloid may form at the piercing site. In various surveys, the rate of earlobe piercing infections alone has been estimated at 11% to 24%. Skin lesions or anatomic abnormalities at the site of piercing, as well as valvular heart disease, are risk factors for complication. Staphylococcal endocarditis of the mitral valve after nasal piercing, Neisseria endocarditis after tongue piercing, and Staphylococcus epidermidis endocarditis and mastitis following nipple piercing have been reported. Even though a consistent correlation is not known between piercing and endocarditis, the number of case reports is increasing, and a correlation may well exist.
Persons at high risk for complications should be treated with preventive antibiotics, just as persons at high risk for complications receive antibiotic treatment before dental procedures. The correlation between dental procedures and endocarditis has been reviewed by Van der Meer et al., who prospectively examined all cases of infective endocarditis in the Netherlands over a 2-year period. Of 427 patients who had been hospitalized, 64 had previous dental or other procedures in the preceding 3 months. Only 48 of the 438 patients met the qualification of having native-valve and cardiovascular anomalies that increased their risk of getting endocarditis. Using these 48 patients as study cases, the researchers found no significant difference in presence of dental procedures between patients and matched controls without endocarditis (odds ratio 1.2, 95% confidence interval 0.03 to 2.3). Two other studies reported similar results. No study has examined the correlation between piercing and endocarditis.
In the United States, body piercing, which is becoming increasingly common, is mainly performed by unlicenced practitioners. Only 26% of states have regulatory authority over tattooing establishments, and only six of these states exercise authority over body-piercing establishments. Piercing occurs in regulated and unregulated shops, department stores, jewelry shops, homes, or physicians' offices. Generally no antibiotic is used, and sterilization methods vary. Studies show that ear piercing can cause cephalic tetanus (a local form of tetanus caused by wounds or other head and neck infections), Pseudomonas infections, or perichondrial auricular abscesses, especially with Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Tongue or oral piercing can cause Ludwig's angina or may be complicated by normal oral flora, such as Haemophilus aphrophilus, as in this case. Genital piercing may result in Escherichia coli infection and may increase the risk for sexually transmitted diseases through tissue damage and exposure and unwanted pregnancy because of condom rupture. Systemic infections, such as toxic shock syndrome or sepsis, have also been reported. Among noninfectious cases, granulomatous perichondritis of the nasal ala, sarcoidlike foreign body reaction from multiple piercing, paraphimosis from a distal penis pierce, and speech impairment, together with difficulty in chewing and swallowing from oral jewelry, have been reported. Metal-associated problems include allergy (especially to nickel), eczematous rash, and lymphocytoma. We describe an incidence of H. aphrophilus endocarditis following tongue piercing.