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Swimming and Healing Body Piercings

The summer for a number of people involved two things, showing off their piercings and other body art they have been hiding under winter clothing and cooling off with a dip in the pool or lake. Maybe a little boating or water skiing for good measure.  So, it shouldn't be surprising that many seek new piercings to show off at the pool and many times the subject of swimming and healing a piercing come up. 

Of course my consultation includes the phrase, "Not submerging the piercing in any body of water that you can't control the quality of. Which is pretty much everything but your own clean and maintained bathtub." I tend to add it to the end of the discussion about cross contamination because if the client is paying attention, as most are, the idea is fresh in their mind when I ask if they have any questions. However often it has gone as far as after the piercing is done and I'm out lining the aftercare for them, that they take not of the fact that I said, "no swimming." Regardless of when the client seems to take notice they always seem puzzled by my instruction not to submerge the piercing. It's why it is included in the consultation because for some reason most don't even consider the idea.

So, why no Swimming? Well, the first thing that one needs to consider is that even though your piercing looks healthy or even might seem to be healed after a couple of weeks it isn't. As I've mentioned a number of times before piercings go through three stages of healing:

  1. Acceptance - The stage in which your body will present a number of signs to tell you that you have a foreign object in your body and you need to do something about it. Often these signs will include signs that usually point to a possible infection. Including redness or discoloration, swelling, heat, throbbing. tenderness to the touch, etc... Once the body realizes that you are not going to remove the jewelry aka foreign object, it will begin the job of producing a layer of tissue around the jewelry to close the wound. 
  2. Healing - Once your body has accepted the fact that the jewelry isn't going to be removed it will begin forming a tunnel of tissue around the jewelry. The body forms this tissue starting at each puncture wound and then slowly adds additional tissue until the two tunnels connect in the center. Often during this period the piercing may appear to be healed. Though there will usually be some signs of new skin growth like the lymph discharge, there is days and weeks when it may not appear. Also often the piercing is not tender at all. However don't be tricked the piercing is in fact an open wound and a pathway for foreign pathogens to enter the body. Thus it is still prone to infection.
  3. Strengthening - During the finial stage the piercing is no longer an open wound but the piercing tissue around the jewelry is thin and fragile. Meaning that the piercing tunnel can tear if there is abuse to the piercing and also it is prone to closing if the jewelry is removed for long periods of time. During this last stage the body will add additional tissue and increase the thickness of the piercing tunnel to make it stronger and less prone to damage. This can take up to a couple of years. 

Now keep in mind that depending on the piercing and its location the first two stages combined can range from 8 weeks to a year. Meaning no swimming for at least two months or in some cases a year.

We have all been told by someone at some point in our life that soaking in a pool or even a lake was good for healing out a scrape or cut. Not sure the logic behind this because even in the best situations, all large bodies of water contain microorganisms. The population maybe less in a treated pool or hot tub but the fact is that they are still alive and well and itching to find a new host. An axiom to go by is "If you wouldn't drink a gallon of the water without purifying it, than you shouldn't submerge an open wound(piercing) in it." I doubt any of you would go to the local swimming pool, river or lake and fill up your water bottle with it, because drinking the water would more than likely make you ill. So, why would you think that you would be safe against foreign pathogens living in the water entering your healing piercing and causing an infection.

Body Water Types and Risks:

Now not all situations are the same risk. Of course untreated water in a lake is going to have more microorganisms than the well maintained and treated pool in your own backyard but the risks are still there. Here is a breakdown of the risks by water body types from lowest to highest:

  1. A clean Bathtub in your own house - Since you can clean and control the water source there should be extremely low risk of exposing the piercing to foreign pathogens. However, if you share the bath with others there is a higher risk of contamination. Even if you live alone the bathtub should be sanitized before using by cleaning the tub with a 10% bleach solution and then rinsing with clean water. After bathing the piercing should be than rinsed under running water.
  2. A Private Swimming Pool - Since a private backyard pool will usually have less people using it and thus a lower risk than a public pool. The more people using the pool the more sweat, urine, mucus, saliva, hair, dead skin and Feces in the pool and thus less microorganisms. However, since it is a private pool and not regulated and tested by the government, there is no verification that the pool is being maintained correctly. So, unless you clean and treat the pool yourself, there is no way to know. Also the chemicals that are used to treat the pool can cause reactions with the piercing including: drying out of the piercing, prolonged healing, and other problems.
  3. Public Swimming Pool - In the summer regardless of whether it's a city pool, the fitness club or a hotel, the place is packed. Thus it's a game of numbers, the more people the more sweat, urine, mucus, saliva, hair, dead skin cells and Feces in the water. Add to that most people do not bath before entering the pool and you begin to understand that you are not only soaking in water but every pathogen or microorganism that lives on every person that have gotten into that pool. You might think that the chemicals in the pool and it's filtration system is removing or killing off most of the contaminates but the reality is that often stronger microorganisms have been known to survive in treated and tested pools. This includes Shigella, E. Coli,  campylobacter and salmonella as well as protozoa like cryptosporidium and giardia and viruses like hepatitis A. With piercings you must also consider that most public pools have water that has a higher percentage of chemicals than backyard pools. This is to combat the increased exposure to more people and the microorganisms they carry. Thus increasing the effect it will have on the piercing.
  4. Hot Tubs - Though private hot tubs in a home that you drained, cleaned and sanitized between uses may not be as big of a risk as say one in a resort swimming area or a hotel room, they are all at risk for contamination. This is mainly due to the piping that feeds the water jets. Warm water often stagnates in the pipes and becomes a breading ground for bacterial and other microorganisms. Even if every part of the tub is cleaned and sanitized, once the jets are turned on the water trapped in the pipes feeding them is released into the water and then ciculated throughout the tub. Just like pools there is the exposure to the unwashed bodies of others and all the sweat, urine, mucus, saliva, hair, dead skin and Feces they carry with them. With hot tubs in hotel rooms there is the increased likelihood of sexual active taking place in the hot tub which adds a whole different source of contaminates waiting to enter your healing piercing. The best choice is to stay out until the piercing is healed. However, if and only if the hot tub is in your home, sanitizing the tub and piping, bathing before getting in and not sharing the tub with others would reduce risks. I would strongly suggest staying out of any public hot tubs or hot tubs that are in hotel rooms until the piercing is completely healed.
  5. Water Parks - First read public pools and then consider that often the water is not treated as strongly as it is in public pools. Add to that the wet and dirty environment that you are placing yourself and your piercing in while you wait in line for the slide.
  6. Wading pools and backyard kids pools - Granted if it is your backyard kiddie pool you do have a level of control over how clean the pool is and the water. The problem is sharing the pool and the fact that the water is untreated, unfiltered and stagnant. Cool water exposed to mother nature for a period of time will begin to collect microorganism rather quickly. Many city parks have shallow wading pools. These are untreated and unfiltered and often like a fountain are the same water circulated over and over. Another thing to consider is that often damage or trauma to the piercing can take place when riding slides and other attractions which will increase the risk to infection or other problem.
  7. Natural Water - This includes any natural body of water include lakes, rivers, ponds and oceans. It doesn't matter how clear the water maybe, even the most pollution free water needs microorganisms to be a healthy ecosystem. Though these organisms may be helpful to the environment they are not going to be to your body and piercing. Than there is pollution which is almost completely unavoidable whether it be rainwater runoff from city streets, industrial or agricultural runoff, it is in the water and it will cause infections or other problems with a healing piercing.  You should never submerge a healing piercing in a natural body of water.

Reducing Risks:

As piercers we design our aftercare instructions to teach our clients habits that will reduce the piercings exposure to foreign pathogens and risk of infection. We would all like to think that by following these steps we can cut the risks down to nil. However, even the best clients make mistakes and this is mainly due to the fact that most of us are simply not used to having an open wound for that long. It is one of the reasons it's easier to heal a nostril piercing without problems than it is to do the same with a navel piercing. Simply a shorter healing time equals less exposure to contamination. 

It's easy to get into the mindset as a piercer that is all or nothing but time and time again, we all experience the client that does everything wrong and still heals the piercing without a problem. Now understand this is an extremely small minority. Just like there is a few people out there that can eat fried foods everyday, wash it all down with 2 pints of Whiskey and chain smoke 3 packs of cigarettes each day, and haven't been sick a day in their life, there are those that just seem blessed. The thing is most of us are not. So, when I make these suggestion to reduce risks while swimming with a healing piercing, understand not swimming is your best option regardless. 

So if you must swim here is a few suggestion to reduce the risk of infection:

  1. Wear a wound sealing water proof bandage over the piercing. There are a number of products on the market such as 3M's Nexcare Clean Seals and can be found at most drugstores. Sometimes they are kept in the baby section. Understand that it is important that you cover the piercing area completely and that the bandage is well attached. There is also a limited time before the bandage will begin to come off and should be checked often. This is especially true of areas of the body that stretch and expand or are in contact with clothing. this will not work for all piercings. For example a nostril, lip or labret piercing can not be covered completely. 
  2. If possible wear water proof clothing over the piercing. Wet suits and swimming caps can reduce contact with water adding another layer of protection. Understand though that wearing taight fitting clothing that blocks the flow of oxygen to the piercing can cause trauma to the piercing and prolonged healing. So limit the time you are wearing these items.
  3. Think about the body of water and the risks listed above. Of course the best option is a treated pool but understand that there are side effects that can be caused by the chemicals.
  4. Chose a time to be in the pool that is less crowded. Just like any ecosystem the more strain that is on the system the higher the amount of foreign pathogens. Since pools rely on both the filtering of the water and the chemical reaction to reduce pathogens it goes without saying more people in the pool more pathogens and more dirty water to filter. The water in the pool is going to be cleaner at 8am when no one is there than it will be a 2pm when there is 100 people there trying to cool down.
  5. Limit the time you spend in the water. Try to reduce the time that the piercing is submerged in the water. If the piercing is high on the body consider wading instead of fully submerging the piercing.
  6. Avoid activities that strain, stress or cause contact with the piercing. Even in a healed piercing tears can occur that will dislodge the piercing tissue and make the piercing more acceptable to infections or other problems. With even a partially healed piercing, the skin growth will help resist the water getting into the piercing. This will be greatly reduced if the tissue is dislodged or torn. 
  7. As soon as you are done swimming rinse the piercing under running water. It wouldn't hurt to clean the piercing also but the main thing we want to do is rinse off the chemicals. Also make sure that you use a clean towel and put on clean clothing afterwards.

Sun Block and Tanning:

Just like cosmetics Sun Block can cause side effects when it comes in contact or gets into the piercing. As with any scar tissue, tanning piercing area can cause the tissue at the entrances to the piercing to become darker or lighter and this can be permanent. Also extreme temperature changes can disrupt healing. So, avoid using sun block or sun tanning products on or around the piercing until it is completely healed. To avoid discoloring or a sun burn in the area, I suggest covering the area with a dark plastic cup, towel or bandage or not tanning at all until after the piercing is completely healed. This is especially the case with tanning bed which are often at a much higher temperature than the sun.