Piercing woes: Allergic reactions to jewelry a pointed problem
December 4, 1998
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Body piercing is nothing new. People of many cultures had been piercing their bodies for centuries by the time 20-year-old Denise Russo caught on.
"I started piercing when I was 16," she said. "I did my nose first. I have my rooks which are in my ears, my nose, my tongue and both my nipples."
A "rook" is a specific piece of jewelry designed to pierce the upper cartilage of the ear.
Along with the recent popularity of piercing various body parts, comes a growing number of related health problems. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the number of allergic reactions to nickel -- a metal often found in piercing jewelry -- is up.
"In the 1980s, the incidence of allergies to nickel was about 10 percent," said Dr. David Cohen of the New York University School of Medicine. "By the mid-1990s, that number had increased almost 40 percent to 14.3 percent."
Allergic reactions to metals are not a new phenomenon. Doctors say there are more cases simply because more people are getting pierced and they are piercing multiple parts of their bodies.
Cohen says an allergic reaction can occur regardless of piercing location.
"No one single body part seems to be at greater risk of allergy to nickel than other parts are," he said.
Telling the difference between an allergic reaction and an infection can be difficult because symptoms can be the same.
"Usually the complaint is redness, swelling, itching and burning," Cohen said. "If it doesn't respond to traditional treatments for infection and it continues to persist, that's when allergy is suspected."
Allergic reactions also occur more frequently than infections. If symptoms are present at more than one piercing site, it's more likely to be an allergy.
Once an allergy is diagnosed, it is easily treated with topical creams and removal of the offending nickel jewelry.
To avoid potential problems, experts recommend using specific metals for the intial piercing.
"You start with 316 lvm stainless steel, surgical-implant quality jewelry which contains, usually, very low nickel content," said Dal Johnson, a body piercer at the popular, counter-culture store Junkman's Daughter in Atlanta.
He also sells starter piercing jewelry made from niobium, titanium, 14 karat and 18 karat gold.
There is no government certification or training for body piercing. But the Association of Professional Piercers does certify members who follow strict safety and health requirements.
Medical Correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore contributed to this report.
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