What Exactly Is a Hickey?

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You’ve probably heard a hickey called by its other popular name; a love bite. But that is technically a bit of a misnomer, as there’s no actual biting involved. Rather, a hickey is when somebody sucks on their partner’s skin so hard that it leaves a visible mark. This is due to the vacuum created by the suction, which causes blood vessels to burst.

“Hickeys result essentially from trauma to the skin, leading to the breakage of tiny superficial blood vessels (capillaries) in the skin,” says Brian Capell, M.D., Ph.D., a practicing dermatologist and member of the Men’s Health advisory board. “These lead to a bruise-like lesion that then has to heal over time.”

Hickeys are most common on the skin of the neck, although it’s technically possible to give somebody a hickey anywhere on the body. Unlike other forms of bruising, however, visible neck hickeys tend to carry a slight social stigma, as they can be interpreted as a sign of recent sexual activity, and therefore perceived as being vulgar. At the very least, they’re a dead giveaway that you’ve been doing more than holding hands.

A person’s reasons for giving their partner a hickey can vary. For some, it is a sign of possessiveness, of “marking their territory” in a fashion. For members of the BDSM community, the mild pain involved can be a factor, as can the dominance of the act.

But can a hickey actually harm you?

“There is not really any long-term health risk of a hickey, that is of course, unless the amount of trauma leads to an actual wound to the skin,” says Capell. “In that case, it could result in a localized opening in the skin and potentially even a skin infection. That being said, in that case it may not even be considered a ‘hickey’ anymore.”

There have been isolated incidents of love bites being linked to more serious health conditions, such as the time a hickey on top of the carotid artery blocked the blood flow to a woman’s brain, causing a fatal stroke. However, it should be noted that these instances are extremely rare.

For most people who have a love bite, their main concern is how to treat it or cover it up. Depending on where it is on the body, it can be concealed with clothing. If it’s somewhere conspicuous like the neck, then the focus should be on reducing the swelling.

One popular remedy involves pressing a cold spoon against the affected area; the logic here is sound, as you’ll want to cool the skin, but a more effective alternative might be a soothing gel or balm. Once the inflammation has gone down, primer and concealer can be used to cover the redness.

However, even then, you might be able to see a trace of the hickey. As Capell says: “Like any bruise, the only real treatment is time!”

Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the United Kingdom covering pop culture, relationships and LGBTQ+ issues.

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