The Health Risks of Pierced Nipples

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Nipple piercings, though they may seem innocuous, do carry health risks that you should be aware of. The most common are infections and bleeding, which can occur shortly after getting a piercing or years later. Scars, tears, and nerve damage are also possible. These may be related to how the piercing was done, how clean you keep the wound, or both.

The article takes a closer look at some of the risks of body piercing. It also offers a few simple tips on what you can do to reduce the risks.

male nipple piercing
 richardarno / Getty Images

Infections Due to Piercing

Men and women who have piercings can experience skin redness, irritation, bleeding, pus, or drainage. These are all signs of an infection. High fever, chills, and increasing pain and warmth are signs of a rapidly worsening infection.

The most common types of infections include:

Bacterial Infections

All body piercings require proper care as they heal. Any open wound caused by piercing can easily become infected. What many people don't realize is that the healing process can take a relatively long time in some cases.

Nipple piercings take anywhere from a year to two years to completely heal. In some cases, piercing holes do not close even after removing jewelry, leaving you vulnerable to recurrent infections. 

Bacteria from the skin itself is the most common source of infection. But, you can also become infected by bacteria in swimming pools or a pond.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a virus affecting the liver that is transmitted through contaminated blood. Needles, particularly in tattoo and piercing settings, are among the possible sources of infection.

It is for this reason that piercing equipment must be disposable or immaculately sterilized—not just sanitized—after each use. Piercing and tattoo parlors in the United States are strictly regulated and licensed by health departments to prevent bloodborne infections like hepatitis B.

Abscesses

Abscesses are painful lumps of pus that can form just under the skin due to an infection. They are common complications of nipple piercings, resulting in redness, swelling, bleeding, and weeping pus. They can occur on other parts of the body as well.

A nipple abscess cannot be treated with antibiotics alone. Instead, it must first be drained and cleaned, often surgically. After the drainage, your healthcare provider will prescribe a course of antibiotics to fight the infection.

In some cases, your piercing may need to be permanently removed to prevent further infections.

Recap

A piercing can cause a bacterial infection or the formation of an abscess if the wound is contaminated. There is also a possibility of hepatitis B if the piercing is performed under unsterile conditions (typically by an unlicensed practitioner).

Piercing Injuries

Nipple piercing can cause problems besides infections. These complications can occur as a result of poor piercing techniques, problems with healing, or the placement of a piercing on delicate tissues.

Traumatic Tear

A piercing anywhere on the body can rip through the skin if the jewelry accidentally catches on something or is yanked. A tear can also occur if you suddenly move while getting a piercing.

Some tissues, like the nipple or genitals, are particularly delicate and prone to tears. Even so, the risk of a tear is increased if the technician doesn't pierce enough skin to keep it stable and secure.

In some cases, the tear may be severe enough to require corrective surgery. The tearing of a clitoral piercing may also end up reducing sexual sensitivity.

Scarring

Piercing ultimately wounds the skin, and wounds can cause scarring. This is more likely to occur if you have an infection following a piercing. Even if you don't, a piercing can cause a raised, pigmented scar known as a keloid.

A keloid is usually larger than the original wound. Some can grow to a significant size and become unsightly and tender to the touch. Surgery, laser therapy, or cryotherapy (the use of freezing to remove abnormal tissues) may be needed if a keloid becomes problematic.

Nerve Damage

While rare, a piercing can sometimes damage nearby nerves, causing persistent pain, discomfort, or the loss of sensation. You are more likely to develop nerve damage if you have had an infection or a traumatic tear.

One area where nerve damage is common is the clitoris. Genital piercing of the clitoris is associated with high rates of diminished sexual function and the loss of clitoral sensitivity due to nerve injury.

Tumors

Nipple piercings are thought by some to increase the risk of breast cancer. To date, there is little evidence of this.

Because nipple piercings are associated with an increased risk of abscesses and keloids, some people have taken that to mean that piercing can cause other abnormal growths, like cancer. This is not true.

A 2018 study published in Dermatology Online reported that abscesses caused by nipple piercings are sometimes mistaken for inflammatory breast cancer during the initial investigation. Other studies have found the same.

Recap

Piercings can cause traumatic tears, scarring, and nerve damage, particularly on delicate tissues like the nipple or clitoris. Despite what some people claim, nipple piercing does not cause breast cancer.

Decreasing the Risks

There are a number of steps you can take to decrease the risk of infection after getting a piercing.

Choose a Licensed Technician

When choosing a technician, be sure to select someone who is licensed, qualified, and experienced. Under no circumstances should you or a friend attempt to pierce your own ear, nipple, eyebrow, or other body parts.

Keep the Skin Clean

Your skin must be clean, dry, and free of infection to avoid contamination once the piercing needle is inserted. After the piercing, your technician will provide you with instructions on how to keep the piercing clean and sanitized until it is fully healed.

Avoid Touching the Piercing

During the healing process, avoid touching the piercing unless it is to clean the wound. Most technicians will even advise you to avoid sexual contact while healing as a partner's hands or mouth contains germs that can contaminate the wound.

To avoid snags, wear soft fabrics over the piercing and avoid yanking down clothing.

Recap

To reduce the risk of infection following a piercing, only choose a licensed and experienced piercing technician. Keep the skin clean before and after the procedure, and avoid touching the piercing until ample healing has occurred.

Summary

Despite their increased popularity, body piercings carry certain health risks. Chief among them is the risk of infection, including bacterial infections, abscesses, and bloodborne infections like hepatitis B.

Piercings can also cause traumatic tears if placed on delicate tissues and/or accidentally yanked or snagged. Scarring is also possible, including enlarged growths called keloids. Nerve damage may also occur, particularly with genital piercings of the clitoris.

To avoid infection or injury, always used a licensed technician and follow the after-care instructions until the wound is fully healed.

Despite claims to the contrary, nipple piercing does not cause cancer.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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