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Piercings and type 1 diabetes

The Family Centre’s Adults’ Community Coordinator Gabby Lane is 23 years old and has lived with type 1 for nearly nine years. She loves living on the edge, but type 1 diabetes sometimes gets in the way. Here, she shares her recent experience with an ear piercing gone wrong.

Over the past few years, I have acquired a few ear piercings, a nose piercing, and one tattoo. I did my research, looked after them carefully, and they healed nicely - until my most recent piercing. 

In December 2019, I got a conch piercing, which is a piercing through the cartilage that sits in the spiral shaped area of the inner ear. It looked awesome but it hurt, a lot. This was probably the first sign that it wasn’t going to last.

In May this year I noticed a small bump form behind the jewellery. I went to my GP who reminded me that people with type 1 diabetes are more vulnerable to infections and prescribed me an antibiotic ointment to apply to the site. After a few days of treatment, I could see that the bump was getting larger, so I went back to the doctor who said the bump looked like a growth of excess tissue that had likely formed from an infection. I was prescribed a stronger antibiotic ointment and a course of strong antibiotics to get rid of any infection I might’ve had. After this treatment, the lump had grown to the size of a pea and had no signs of slowing down. I returned to my doctor who prescribed me another course of even stronger antibiotics and treated the area with black goop called silver nitrate. My ear looked gross!

The silver nitrate treatment didn’t fix my ear, and at that point I decided to take the jewellery out, but it was stuck and wouldn’t unscrew. I quickly started to feel worried about having type 1 and an infection, so I sought medical attention again. The doctor cut the jewellery out of my ear, cleaned it and referred me to a plastic surgeon to get rid of the lump. The next week, I had a minor procedure where they gave an injection of local anaesthetic (ironically, they used an insulin needle to deliver the anaesthetic because it is thinner than other needles) and then cut the lump out of my ear. 

There are risks to having body piercings whether you have type 1 diabetes or not. However, if you have type 1 it’s vital you are aware that you may be at a higher risk of infection if you get a piercing. The experience of getting the piercing itself may cause high blood glucose levels as a response to the pain. Ensure your blood glucose management is on-point when you get a piercing and during the healing process, to help avoid infection. Infections can drive up blood glucose levels, and high blood glucose levels increase vulnerability to infection – this is really important to manage carefully. 

Tips for post-piercing care:

  • Wear a CGM/Libre or monitor your blood glucose levels closely: You need to ensure good control of your levels to minimise risk of infection of the piercing 

  • Keep the piercing clean: Follow the instructions from your piercing studio to keep the piercing as clean as possible

  • Go to a reputable piercing studio: This should ensure a clean piercing procedure, a level of expertise for piercing placement and care, and good after-care 

  • Seek support: If you are unsure about getting a piercing as a person with type 1, connect with other people in the type 1 community – they’re a wealth of tips and lived experience. 

If you have a piercing done and you experience redness, swelling, pain, high blood glucose levels, heat sensation and/or discharge at the piercing site, it’s probably infected. Seek medical attention quickly and follow your management plan for high blood glucose levels.

Meanwhile, I’ll think very carefully before I get another piercing. Four doctors appointments, a plastic surgery appointment, two courses of antibiotics, two lots of antibiotic ointments, a silver nitrate treatment, a minor procedure and a lot of money and pain, all for a piercing that my body decided to reject – this one wasn’t worth it! 

Pictured: Gabby's ear (left to right): initial piercing, initial infection, excess tissue growth, silver nitrate treatment, post-plastic surgery.

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