The Health Risks of Pierced Nipples

Nipple piercings, though they may seem innocuous, do carry some health risks that you should be aware of. The most common adverse effects of nipple piercing are infections and bleeding, which can occur shortly after getting a piercing or may develop years afterward. Scarring, nerve damage, and other concerns are also possible, and all of these things may have to do with how the piercing was done, how well you keep it clean, or both.

Some have raised a related risk of breast cancer. Cases in and around the pierced nipple do occur, though they are rare, but the reason for the association is not clear.

Infection

Men and women who have nipple piercings can experience skin redness, irritation, bleeding, pus, or drainage. These are all signs of an infection. Warmth of the area or a fever, which are less common, are signs of a rapidly worsening infection.

The most common types of nipple infections include:

Bacterial Infections

All body piercings require proper care as they heal, and the "open wound" of any piercing can easily become infected. 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 potentially vulnerable to infection. 

Bacteria from the skin is the most common source of infection, but you can also become infected from bacterial contamination after swimming in a pool or a pond.

Hepatitis

An infection that affects the liver, hepatitis B is a virus that is often transmitted through contaminated blood. Needles, particularly in tattoo and piercing settings, are among the sources of this virus.

Abscesses

Abscesses are painful lumps of pus that can form just under the skin, and they are common complications of nipple piercings. Symptoms of an abscess include redness, swelling, weeping pus, or bleeding.

A nipple abscess cannot be treated with oral (by mouth) or intravenous (IV) antibiotics. Instead, it must be drained and cleaned, often surgically. After your procedure, your doctor may also suggest a course of antibiotics to fight the infection, and your piercing will probably need to be removed to prevent further infections.

In addition to infections, nipple piercings can cause rare complications, including allergic reactions to jewelry and breast tumors.

Growths and Injuries

Nipple piercing can cause a number of other problems besides infections as well. These complications can occur as a result of the technique used or due to issues with healing.

Traumatic Tear

The nipple is relatively delicate. A piercing anywhere in the body can tear through the skin, rather than leaving a small hole, as intended. This can happen if you suddenly move while you are getting the piercing, if the piercing device or technician jerks, or if the jewelry pulls and rips your nipple—before or after full healing has occurred.

Scarring/ Keloids

Wounds such as piercings can cause scars. This is more likely if you have had an infection. A keloid is a large, raised, pigmented scar. Some people are prone to keloid formation even without an infection.

Cyst

A cyst is an enlarged, non-infectious bump. Cysts often form due to trauma, and they are typically larger and more prone to infection than scars and keloids.

Nerve Damage

While it is rare, a piercing can damage nearby nerves, causing persistent pain, discomfort, or complete loss of sensation in the affected area. You are more likely to develop nerve damage if you had an infection or a traumatic tear due to your piercing.

According to La Leche League, nerve damage from nipple piercing may affect a woman's milk ejection reflex, interfering with breastfeeding. Related scarring may also impact milk production.

Tumors

While it is uncommon, nipple piercings have been associated with breast tumors. Because it is rare, it is never possible to know with certainty whether piercings cause or play a role in the development of these tumors, or whether the cancer is coincidental.

If you develop a lump, growth, hardening, or change in the appearance of your breast or nipple, it is important that you have it evaluated. If your doctor orders an imaging test, such as a mammogram or a breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study, you will need to remove all of your jewelry so that the metal doesn't interfere with the image. A hesitancy to do that is actually the biggest concern regarding the relationship between breast cancer and nipple piercing, as it may prevent some from getting these tests.

You may also need to have a breast or nipple biopsy, which could potentially alter the shape of your nipple.

If you have cancer that requires radiation treatment, you may be asked to remove jewelry from your nipple during and after radiation treatments.

Decreasing the Risks

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

Choose a Licensed Technician

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

Bloodborne viruses and infections like hepatitis and HIV can be passed on in the tiny amounts of blood that stick to the piercing needle. As such, there is a substantial risk of transmitting disease if your piercing technician is not trained in and using sterile techniques.

Clean Your Skin

Your own skin must be clean, dry, and free of any infection to avoid contamination of the piercing when the needle is inserted into your skin.

Follow Aftercare Instructions

Your technician should provide you with information about cleansing, bandaging, and caring for your piercing. Be sure to follow through on the aftercare instructions you are given.

Avoid Touching Your Piercing

During the healing process, avoid touching your piercing, unless it is to cleanse the area. Most piercing technicians advise avoiding sexual activity while healing is taking place because hands and mouths contain germs that may be transmitted to the pierced wound.

Any trauma around the piercing can cause bleeding and increase the risk of infection. Choose supportive bras and soft fabrics, and be careful to avoid pulling down on your clothing to avoid snagging the piercings.

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