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BODY PIERCING -- FASHION'S RISKY BUSINESS

When Buffalo rock guitarist Tom Johnson got his nose pierced last year, he thought it would look good on stage along with his shoulder-length hair.

He didn't count on the ugly mess the piercing turned out to be.

"I thought it would be cool," says Johnson, too embarrassed to have his real name used, "but it turned out nasty."

The piercing became inflamed, turning into a red, weeping sore. Johnson put antibiotic cream on it, but it didn't do much good. Finally his day boss (the musician doubles as a waiter) made a decision for him. He told the young man to take the nose ring out -- pronto.

The trend toward piercing has its risks, say some members of the medical community.

A recent study in the medical journal Pediatrics examines piercing-related infections, which some doctors say have doubled in number. The Journal of the American Dental Association also has just published a survey of piercings, saying chipped teeth may be one risk of having oral jewelry.

"It's really quite amazing that the individuals don't suffer more discomfort at the site," says Dr. Robert J. Genco, chairman of the University at Buffalo's department of oral biology, who's concerned about other possible harm such as nerve injury and scarring. "I'd definitely advise against piercing through the entire lip or the tongue. It would seem to me that these would have bad side effects."

Amherst plastic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Meilman refuses to pierce eyebrows and tongues. He has seen a case of a girl whose tongue ring came loose and lodged in her windpipe.

"It doesn't make sense to me. It's not aesthetically pleasing," he says. "To add to the list of complications, usually the scar that's formed is a heavy scar. It's not just a little white line."

A number of problems arise when non-experts do the piercing. Heather S., 14, was spotted downtown at the recent Taste of Buffalo festival with red ears, and not from the steamy weather. Her parents gave her money to have her family doctor do the piercing.

"But I spent it on clothes," explains Heather, who asked that her last name not be used because her mom still doesn't know the whole story. "I asked my boyfriend to pierce my ears."

He put ice cubes on her ear lobes to numb them. It didn't work. Heather was under the kitchen table with pain, and her ears soon were leaking greenish pus. She finally did get to a doctor, who has largely cleared up the infection. But he has warned her that she may have an allergy, and to stay away from earrings -- and lake swimming, until her ears are completely healed.

One pierced bartender, interviewed in a recent Washington Post story, suffered an infected nipple that swelled to nearly the size of a football.

An allergy might be comparatively good news, as unsanitary piercing equipment could also transmit infectious diseases, when the tongue, eyebrows, armpits, lips, genitalia or whatever are punctured. There's also the risk of damaged taste buds, impeded speech or drooling.

Surgeons, who have seen more requests for unusual piercings since the start of the '90s, have turned some people away. Meilman has turned away a number of children, even when brought by their parents, because they were simply too young. Busy doing reconstructive work on ripped-through holes, he has seen eyebrows that were pulled through by rings, which resulted in deformity, not to mention loss of eyebrow hair where the hole was. He has had to reconstruct the eyebrows of children brought in by their parents.

There have also been "many pierces torn through in the ears," and nipples that have had to be reconstructed. When the nose is pulled through, it can be troublesome, "because that's through cartilage and skin," Meilman says.

Women and men have pierced their ears for centuries. But other parts of the body, such as the mouth, present a greater risk for infection. If you choose to pierce, don't make it a do-it-yourself job -- go to an ear-piercing specialist or, better still, a physician. And follow his instructions for taking care of a fresh puncture.

Even if piercing is done under sterile conditions, and if you manage not to tear your ring out, there's still another issue to think about. If this street "art form" is a just a fad, consider this:

"If you put a large hole in your nose, it's there forever," Meilman warns. Guys "who want government jobs have had pierce holes (fixed). Even if you close the hole, you end up with a scar. It's a fad. I don't think it'll be here 10 or 15 years from now."

Yet the trend shows no sign of waning. Even the staid New Yorker magazine recently had a cover of newlyweds with exchanged nose rings.

Rocker Johnson considers himself lucky. You can barely see where his nose ring used to be.

His wife, though, wears a threadlike gold hoop in her nose that has caused her no problems. Johnson, who dropped plans to get his ears pierced, quips, "I'll let her wear the rings in the family."

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