What is a body piercing infection?

Body piercing infections are most commonly caused by bacteria entering the site of the fresh wound and multiplying as your body’s immune system fails to kill the foreign matter.

Why do piercings get infected?

Infection will usually occur during the healing phase of the piercing, not necessarily as a result of the piercing process itself. Any type of surgical procedure, whether it is a tongue piercing or a kidney transplant, carries a risk of infection even if sterile technique is followed carefully. Skin bacteria is most often the cause of infection in body piercings when coming into contact with the fresh wound during aftercare. Good hand-washing and ensuring your nails are dirt-free when handling your body piercing is essential for the prevention of infection.

What should I expect from a normal, healthy, healing piercing?

A fresh piercing may be slightly sore, tender and swollen for approximately 1-2 weeks after the initial procedure; however, this varies from person to person and the area being pierced. This is to be expected as part of the piercing process. Pain and discomfort subsides gradually as each day passes.
You will also notice light-coloured lymph that will start to discharge from the piercing about a day or two after the initial procedure; this is nothing to worry about. Lymph is a mixture of oxygen, proteins, glucose and white blood cells secreted from the fresh wound to promote healing of your piercing. This will continue to do so until your piercing is fully healed.

What are the common symptoms of an infection?

  • Increased pain and tenderness
  • Excessive redness around the piercing
  • Prolonged bleeding
  • Dark coloured discharge (such as yellow, brown or green pus)
  • A change in your skin colour around the piercing area
  • Area will feel hot to the touch
  • Area may have an unusual smell
  • Black dead-tissue build up
  • Fever

How do I know if my piercing is infected?

  1. Do you see a dark discharge? Is your piercing painfully swollen? Is it warm to the touch? This could indicate bacteria or another irritant has caused an infection or a response from you body that resembles an infection.
  2. Is there a solid marble-like bump underneath your skin? Is it warm to the touch? Is it painfully swollen? Do you see dark discharge? This could indicate an abscess. An abscess is a trapped infection underneath the skin, which could potentially burst. Don’t squeeze it and don’t remove your body jewellery. See a doctor immediately, as this could develop into a bigger complication.
  3. Is there a bump next to the piercing, similar to a pimple? Is it tender and swollen? Do you see pus? This could indicate a blocked pore or follicle in or near the piercing. This is nothing to worry about and regular hot compress care should treat it easily.
  4. Is your piercing itchy? Is the skin tender, tight and shiny? Is there a rash? This could indicate a reaction to the metal or any chemicals you may be using on the piercing. Simply change your body jewellery to a different metal (Titanium, Blackline and Zircon Gold recommended) and do not use any cleaning agents on the piercing. Saline Solution can and should be used.
  5. Is there a dark, shiny lump forming at the entry hole of your piercing? Does the lump remain a small size without growing? This could indicate hypertrophic scarring. This is fairly common and will subside in most cases. Continue with your aftercare regime, avoiding irritation to the area.
  6. Is there a growing dark lump of skin forming around the entry hole of your piercing? Is the piercing tender or inflamed? Is the lump increasing in size? Is the area itchy? This could indicate a keloid. Keloids are raised, reddish nodules that grow above the surface of the skin and form large mounds of scar tissue. Keloids cannot be treated and will require surgical removal (although this is not always successful). You will need to see your doctor for advice.

I think my piercing is infected, what should I do?

You can treat the majority of body piercing infections at home by following a few relatively easy guidelines.

Your first plan of action should be to visit your piercer (or any reputable piercing studio) to have your body piercing examined and diagnosed. Many people mistake the typical healing process for an infection so it is important to have a professional opinion before taking further action. Most professional piercing studios will provide you with specific instructions on how to care for your piercing and what to do if you get an infection.

In the case of an infected piercing, a doctor or GP will often request for your body piercing jewellery to be removed. It is very important for you to discuss with the doctor that the jewellery must remain in place to act as a drain for the infected discharge. If the jewellery is removed, the openings of the piercing will close up and the infection will not drain, which can result in an abscess. An abscess is an infection that is trapped under the skin and is indicated by a darkening and hardening of the surrounding tissue, swelling and pain.

My cartilage piercing is infected and won’t seem to heal, what should I do?

Infected cartilage piercings such as the nose and upper ear will take longer to heal, as cartilage does not have its own blood supply; it depends on the surrounding tissues to provide oxygen and nutrients by diffusion.

This also makes cartilage piercings more susceptible to infection and harder to treat, therefore require patience and persistence.

Destruction of cartilage by an infection can also lead to deformity of the ear or nasal contours. While most infections can be treated successfully with early use of antibiotics, it is a risk that you should know about.

How can I treat a body piercing infection?

A piercing infection can sometimes be treated at home, although antibiotics are typically necessary if the infection has spread beyond the immediate area of the wound. This as known as cellulitis and occurs when the body can no longer wall-off the infection.

It is important to note that if symptoms do not subside within 2-3 days, one should seek medical advice for oral antibiotic treatment.

The basic steps to treat a piercing infection are:

  1. Clean the piercing and surrounding area with rubbing alcohol using a cotton wool pad or swab for a minimum of one minute, as this will remove any skin bacteria on and around the piercing. Remove any debris; dead tissue, pus, dirt or other foreign material on the piercing and jewellery. Do not use Hydrogen Peroxide to clean the area as this will also kill white blood cells, responsible for fighting against the infection.
  2. Rotate your piercing jewellery gently and apply more of the cleansing liquid, working it all the way through the hole as much as possible. This will also encourage drainage of infected discharge from your piercing.
  3. Use a hot compress to soak the piercing in hot salt water to encourage the infection to drain and increase blood circulation to the area. Compresses should be made of clean, disposable materials such as cotton balls, pads or gauze sponges.
  4. Pat the area dry the area with a disposable cloth or cotton pad and avoid contact with unclean matter. You may wish to apply some antibiotic cream or ointment around the piercing.

What precautions should I take when treating an infected piercing?

  • Your bed sheets and clothing in contact with the body piercing area should be changed daily
  • Promote circulation and a healthy immune system with good nutrition, avoiding alcohol, and quitting smoking. This is extremely important, if not essential to the healing process
  • Do not use alcohol or Peroxide to clean the area as both products will dry out and irritate your skin
  • Do not use any public hot tubs or swimming pools until your infection has been treated
  • Throw out your old toothbrush and get a new, soft-bristled toothbrush if you are treating a tongue or lip piercing. This is to avoid exposure to bacteria from your old toothbrush.
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