By Almas Shamim

I clearly remember the teary day I got my ears pierced for the first time. I was a wailing kid less than three years old, sitting on a stool outside an old jewellery shop in the alley next to “ghanta ghar”. The shopkeeper had given me a banana to eat, probably as a consolation after the ordeal. (Or is that a tradition?) The fear of the “piercing pain” didn’t last long though. I grew up to have two more piercings in my left ear, three more in the right one and also a nose piercing; and ALL of those piercings at jewellery shops. I would love to get my brows pierced too. It’s just that my mummy is quite revolted at that idea.

There’s another thing which fascinates me- tattoos! As a kid, I remember watching tribals on television with their bodies beautifully covered with paint and tattoos. For a very long time, I only saw tattoos on television. Off late, tattoos seem more real with most people around me getting inked. I am smitten by the gorgeous little “Om” and “Trishul” tattoos. And I have elaborate plans of the many times and the many parts of my body which I wish to adorn with inked images.

Now, all this is normal, right? Very much so. Tattoos and piercings have become a common fashion statement now-a-days. Many of us have our very identities linked to the body art we endorse. But, like all good things, these too come with a teeny-weeny problem. A teeny-weeny problem that can actually cost us our lives! And that is the transmission of blood-borne infectious diseases.

We must have heard many times that HIV is transmitted through sexual contact, through transfusion of blood or even through shared drug injections (needles). However, it is not so common to hear or read messages that warn against the possibility of HIV transmission through ear piercings and tattoos. But, it becomes obvious when we look deeper because both tattooing and piercing involve needles. With the increasing incidence of other diseases that can be transmitted through same routes- like Hepatitis B and C, the need to stress on adopting precautions while choosing body art and piercings, is a big public health challenge. While some of such diseases are being treated by the government, diseases like Hepatitis C are still beyond the ambit of care provided by most government hospitals. Even if available in the private sector, the drugs are priced exorbitantly high, making them out of the common man’s reach.

So, it becomes all the more important for us to be careful while also not killing any of our wishes to be more “fashionable”. Ideally, piercings and tattooing should be done by professionals. There are some renowned parlours in most cities which offer professional, safe and hygienic tattooing and piercing. While planning a tattoo, it is desirable that we do a thorough search of the options available to us and choose those which use disposable needles. Ensuring that the packets carrying the needles and the ink before our eyes is also important. Parlours which are already following safety procedures should not have any problem in agreeing to such requests. In any case, we must beware of procedures that are offered on the roadside, in traditional ‘melas’ and small shacks or make-shift shops. Another thing that has to be remembered is that the chance of infection increases with each prick- meaning that more the number of tattoos and larger the size of each tattoo, higher the chance of acquiring an infection.

Ear-piercings, which are commoner in our islands, may not be always be deferred to mainland trips. We must, therefore, make sure that the shops where we get the piercings use the most modern piercing guns which come with reusable cartridges. These cartridges are designed such that all parts of the piercing apparatus that may come in contact with body fluids are replaced for each customer. Older guns have parts which may not be changed between customers and this carries risk of transmission. These precautions hold even if we go for piercings in the mainland, in fact, more so because of the higher prevalence of infections that can be transmitted through body fluids, in some places in the mainland.

So, well…go get that piercing or that tattoo…but please be safe and remind family and friends also to be safe.

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.