Allergy to Body Piercings

You can be allergic to your tongue piercing.

From earlobes to nipples and everything in between, body piercing is a trend that doesn't seem to be dying down anytime soon. But before going under the needle, you may want to consider whether you could be allergic to the metals used in jewelry.

Piercing Location and Symptoms

Many body piercings involve the placement of metallic objects in the ears, nose, navel, and even the tongue. Since metals are frequently the causative triggers for contact dermatitis, it's possible for people to experience allergic reactions to body piercing jewelry.

These allergic reactions may include eczema on the skin at the site of contact with the jewelry, but could also include chronic abdominal pain and diarrhea in a person with a tongue piercing. A recent case report of a young woman with a tongue piercing found that contact dermatitis to nickel was the cause of her chronic abdominal pain symptoms. When the tongue piercing was removed, her symptoms went away.

Minimizing Risk of Allergic Reaction

Experts advise seeking a reputable piercer and asking about hygiene and infection-control practices. This is critical in avoiding potentially dangerous communicable diseases. To avoid potential problems with allergic reactions, also ask what type of material they use. Surgical-quality stainless steel is often optimal because it usually contains a very low nickel content, which is one of the biggest triggers. Once your piercing has healed and you are able to select your own jewelry, opt for pieces made from 14- or 18-karat gold, titanium, or niobium.

 

Evidence suggests that the more you are exposed to metal, the more likely you may be to develop an allergy to it. Therefore, the more piercings you have, the higher your risk of developing a problem. Once you suffer an allergic reaction from a piercing, you will always be at risk for developing a reaction to that material and the severity of the reaction increases with the exposure.

Therefore, once you identify an allergy, do your best to minimize use of jewelry made from that material. 

Diagnosing Metal Allergies

Piercings can result in infection, and since symptoms overlap, it can be difficult to tell the difference between an infection and an allergic reaction. Both conditions can cause swelling, redness, warmth, itching, and burning. However, allergic reactions won't improve with the use of topical antibiotic ointments. Often, that is the first clue that a person is suffering from an allergy and not an infection. In addition, infections are relatively rare compared with allergic reactions. And finally, if a person has more than one piercing, and experiences symptoms in multiple locations, that would be another indication that an allergy is at play. 

Contact dermatitis to nickel (and other metals) is diagnosed using patch testing. Treatment includes avoidance of nickel and related metals, as well as the use of topical steroids. A test to determine the presence of nickel in jewelry and other metallic devices, called dimethylglyoxime test, is available commercially.

Find out more about the common causes of contact dermatitis.

Source:

Amara A, Khoury N, Amara S, Martin G. Clinical Dilemma: Systemic Contact Enterocolitis – A New Disease Term? Presented at the 2008 American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Accessed November 11, 2008.

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