Pierced ears

Make sure your child is ready for the responsibility of pierced ears

Kaila* was nearly 10 when she talked her mom into letting her get her ears pierced. “Some of my friends had them,” she says, “and I wanted to be able to wear dangly earrings. We went to Shopper’s Drug Mart and they did it with a piercing gun. It didn’t hurt that much — like a bee sting that stopped after a couple of seconds.”

Kaila kept her piercings clean as instructed, but she was too impatient to wait the full eight weeks and took her piercing studs out early so she could wear “real” earrings. “The earrings I used were thinner than the studs so the holes in my ears healed too small,” she explains. “Then some of my earrings didn’t go in easily and would make my ears sore, and eventually my ears got infected.” Kaila gave up and let her piercings grow over.

Miriam Kaufman, a paediatrician at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, cautions that while preteens may aspire to some of the more exotic piercings, such as navel or nostril piercings they see on young adults, at this age parents should hold the line at earlobe piercings, which are most likely to heal trouble-free.

“Cartilage takes a long time to heal, and the piercings that are most likely to be infected are the eyebrows because there are a lot of germs there. And, of course, we worry about anything close to the brain or eyes, in case an infection were to spread to those areas.”

Even with earlobes, Kaufman suggests parents might arrange a “trial” so the child can demonstrate that she is ready to take on the responsibility of caring for a healing piercing. “If you are OK with ear piercing, but not convinced your child will follow the hygiene regimen, you could set up a simulation, such as having her take on some regular chore: ‘I want to see you brush the dog (or clear the table) twice a day for three weeks, without me reminding you.’ And then at the end of the trial you can say, ‘That’s great, you did it’ or ‘You know what, honey, you only did it for the first three days. You would have infected ears — you’re not ready for this.’”

*Name changed by request.

If you’re comfortable with the decision to go ahead, what’s the next step? Jacob Johnson, manager of Next! Body Piercing in Vancouver, says that the piercing guns used in many hair salons and malls are not the best option. “They can’t be sterilized in an autoclave, which is what we use to sterilize all our tools — even our Q-tips are autoclaved. So they just wipe them down with alcohol or chlorine, and those chemicals do not kill some strains of hepatitis and other blood-transmitted diseases.” Johnson also feels that the posts of the jewellery in piercing guns are often too short to accommodate the swelling that occurs after the procedure. “Also the butterfly backing on an ear-piercing gun stud pushes all the germs and bacteria right up against the back of the piercing.”

Instead, Johnson recommends that all piercings, including earlobes, be done using a single-use sterilized hollow needle and fully sterilized equipment. And he adds that the procedure should be done by a trained person. A needle may sound more primitive, but piercing professionals insist that these specialized needles are less painful and cause less tissue damage than piercing guns. At Johnson’s shop, they use an extra-long stud that has room to slide back and forth for proper cleaning, with a smooth disc backing “with no little holes that can trap bacteria.”

What goes in the ear as it heals is important too, Johnson points out, as some metals are more likely than others to cause an allergic reaction. His shop uses 316LVM implant grade stainless steel — “the same metal used for pins in your knee.”

Kaila, now 13, recently campaigned for an upper ear piercing, but after her mom showed her research on possible complications, she agreed to leave her cartilage alone and instead got a piercing at the top of her earlobe. It’s a compromise they can both be happy with, and as a bonus, she says, “it didn’t hurt as much as when I got the lower lobes done.”

New piercings are susceptible to infection. But you can lower the risk by practising proper hygiene. Even if your child has demonstrated her diligence, it’s worth supervising how she cares for her piercing. Soap is the most important ingredient in the instructions provided by Jacob Johnson, manager of Next! Body Piercing in Vancouver.

• Wash your hands before putting them anywhere near your piercing, every time. Johnson says infection is rare, but most often caused by touching the piercing with dirty hands.

• Soak any “crusties” with warm water — don’t pick them! A sea salt soak two or three times a week (not more; it’s drying) helps promote healing.

• Wash the piercing at least twice a day with a non-antibacterial, unscented soap. If anything might have got the piercing dirty, wash it again. Use a Q-tip to clean the exposed parts of the jewellery.

• Rinse well; soap residue will irritate the skin.

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