8 June 1999

Risks of Body Piercing to People with Heart Conditions

A new study, conducted by the Mayo Clinic, has found that nearly one out of four people who have parts of their body pierced and are at higher risk for heart valve infection suffer from infection as a result of the piercing. But despite the risks, only six percent took preventative antibiotics to fend off infection.

The 445 patients in the study all had a congenital heart disease and were at increased risk of getting endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves. Congenital heart disease affects over one million adults in the United States.

"Bacterial endocarditis is a serious, difficult-to-treat, and potentially life-threatening condition," says Carole Warnes, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic and lead author of the study. "But the good news is that some cases may be prevented with the use of preventive doses of antibiotics whenever a person undergoes piercing that carries a risk of this type of infection."

The study also indicated that 60 percent of physicians believe that patients with heart disease should use preventive antibiotics if they want a body piercing or tattoo. These procedures must be sterile procedures. However, the sterile nature of the procedure varies depending upon the technique and needles used.

Those at greatest risk of infectious endocarditis, also called bacterial endocarditis, are people with damaged heart valves (congenital, or the result of rheumatic fever) or prosthetic heart valves. The infection may enter the bloodstream during seemingly minor procedures such as body piercing or routine dental work.

Because body piercing involves breaching one of the body's main barriers to disease - the skin - it brings with it a high risk of infection if done incorrectly. Risks include hepatitis, tetanus and HIV infection. Less serious local infections can cause illness, deformity and scarring.