How To Treat Infected Piercings, Plus Tips For Preventing Them From Happening Ever Again

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Body piercings are the new norm, and along with that new norm comes the need for a lesson on how to prevent or treat infected piercings. No one wants an infected ear piercing, much less an infected lip or nose piercing. According to a 2010 report by Pew Social Trends, "nearly one-in four (millennials) have a piercing in some place other than an earlobe." With this rise in popularity of piercings, knowledge of proper care post-poke is a must.

Since most of us have some type of metal or jewel adorning our bodies, we have to know what to do in case of a piercing emergency. There is nothing less fabulous than a red, itchy, runny, open wound surrounding a should-be beautiful cartilage piercing. It's something that, at the least, is not aesthetically pleasing. At the most, it could be the sign of an infection that could need antibiotics to kick.

It's worth noting that any reputable piercer will give you care guidelines before you leave a piercing shop. If you follow those, chances are you'll have a happy and healthy healed piercing. And, if not, any reputable piercer will also be available for a call if you're stuck on what to do next. Checking in with the professionals is always a good move.

But since you are here, these are some how-to tips for preventing infection in new piercings, or problem-solving when an infection has already occurred. But really, give your piercer a call.

1. Keep Your Piercing Happy

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Take good care of your new metal friend. The piercing site is essentially an open wound until healing is complete. Your first priority is to go to a clean, safe, and reputable place to get the job done.

According to the Association of Professional Piercers (APP), proper aftercare includes washing your hands thoroughly before touching the piercing, saline soaking the piercing for five to ten minutes at least once a day, and drying the piercing completely. Don't turn or rotate the jewelry whatsoever. For oral piercing, rinsing with a sea salt solution or alcohol-free mouthwash post meals.

Don't overclean your piercing, or put any cosmetics on the region until healing is over. And make sure not to snag your new jewels on any clothing. Ouch.

2. Understand The Normal Reactions You'll Have With New Piercings

The Association of Professional Piercers states that some leaking or bleeding is normal after punching a hole in cartilage or epidermis. As long as a pierced person is following proper aftercare and there is no overt pain, it is normal to see:

  • Localized swelling (especially in oral piercings), which can last several days
  • A clear, crystalline crust that forms at the openings from dead skin cells
  • Light bleeding, especially from genital piercings
  • Discoloration of the skin which can be red, brown, pink, or purple in tone and may remain for months on navel or surface piercings

If you are unsure if something is normal, pick up the phone and call your piercer. They will calm any nerves, or tell you exactly how to treat an issue depending on the issue and how far you are into the healing process.

3. Look Out For Allergic Reactions To The Metal

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Allergic reactions to the metal you've been pierced with are often mistaken for infection. A new piercing should always be pierced with surgical steel, titanium, gold, niobium, platinum, biocompatible polymers, or — in some cases — glass.

The APP says common symptoms of a piercing allergy include:

  • Red, itchy rash around the piercing (often up to several inches around the insertion point)
  • The piercing hole may appear significantly larger than the jewelry
  • Tenderness (even when there is no blunt pain)

Skin eruptions below the piercing (where soap has contact), however, often mean a reaction to a cleaning product rather than metal.

To treat a piercing-related allergy, the APP recommends touching base with a piercer or a medical professional. Both will probably recommend:

  • A topical or oral antihistamine
  • Having a piercer change the type of jewelry inserted
  • Switching to a milder cleaning product

4. Look Out For Warning Signs Of Abnormal Reactions Due To Trauma

It's normal for healing to take time. According to the American Association of Family Physicians, belly button piercings can take up to nine months to completely heal (consider it your jewelry baby). While some discoloration or tenderness may not be a sign of serious trouble, a piercing is trauma that can sometimes result in an infection even if you do everything "right."

If you do have an infection, whether mild or more severe, the main rule of thumb is do not remove the jewelry yourself. If you remove it, the outer holes could close and lead to an abscess. This is not only super gross, but potentially really bad for your health. Go see a piercer to consult with them.

If caught soon enough, a mild, local infection may be treated at home. According to APP, signs of a mild infection due to trauma are:

  • Pinkish or reddish skin that may be swollen and warm to the touch
  • Localized tenderness
  • A small amount of pus
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • A small red "piercing pimple" around the piercing site

A piercer or medical doctor will probably recommend a similar course of action to a metal allergy. This includes:

  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen to combat swelling and pain
  • Saline baths to keep the piercing clean
  • Light localized massages with clean hands that may help break up the pocket and prevent its return

5. Stop Reading Immediately & Call A Doctor, Stat, If:

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If you think something is wrong with your piercing, it is always advisable to contact a professional. But, according to APP, it is especially important to contact a piercer or medical professional if you notice the following symptoms:

  • Excessive pus at the site that is greenish, grayish, or yellowish and has an odor
  • Chills, fever, dizziness, disorientation, vomiting, or nausea
  • You have intense pain, redness or severe swelling
  • Red streaks from the insertion site
  • Any similar reaction that seems abnormal or lasts more than a week

Use your common sense and knowledge of your own body at the first sign of trouble. It's better to check in with a professional than to risk a serious infection.

With this knowledge, you can safely handle any piercing. Now go forth and get that metal.

This post was originally published on May 28, 2015. It was updated and republished on June 25, 2019. Additional reporting by Katie Dupere.

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