Body Piercing Problems

Topic Overview

Body piercings

Body piercing is very popular with both men and women. Many areas of the body are used for piercing. Most people who have piercings do not develop any problems.

The ears are the most common piercing site. Most of the time, an earlobe piercing heals without any problems. Piercing other areas of the ear usually involves piercing the cartilage that gives the ear shape. Piercing ear cartilage creates a wound that is harder to clean, takes longer to heal, and is more likely to become infected than earlobe piercing.

Other popular sites include the mouth and tongue, nose, eyebrow, navel, and genital area. Each body piercing site has its own normal healing time and its own set of potential problems. Home treatment can help speed healing of the wound and prevent problems. At first, a body piercing site may be slightly swollen. A small amount of blood or fluid may drain from the site.

Common problems that develop from body piercing include:

  • Infection of the site.
    • Infection of the mouth or lips may cause speech, chewing, or swallowing problems or swelling that can block the throat.
    • Infection of a nipple can scar the breast tissue and limit the ability to breast-feed later.
    • The infection may be potentially serious or life-threatening and involve the entire body (systemic).
  • Splitting or tearing of the skin, which may cause the formation of scar tissue.
  • Problems with the type of jewelry used, including allergies to a metal. Make sure you use the type of jewelry designed for your piercing site. Only use nonallergenic jewelry. Surgical stainless steel, gold, platinum, niobium, and titanium are the only types of jewelry you should use in a new piercing.
  • Other problems caused by the jewelry.
    • Jewelry in the mouth or lips can cause chipping or cracking of the teeth, gum problems, and difficulty chewing or swallowing. Jewelry can also become loose and be swallowed.
    • Jewelry in the navel can get caught on clothing and linens. This constant irritation can delay healing. Navel piercings can take up to a year to heal completely.
    • Jewelry in the genital area may cause injury to you or your sex partner. It also can cause condom breakage, increasing the risk of pregnancy and exposure to sexually transmitted infections. Piercings in the penis can decrease a man's ability to get or maintain an erection.
  • Damage to underlying blood vessels or nerves.
  • Scarring of the piercing site.

If a sterile technique is not used, there is a chance of spreading diseases, such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Blood infections (sepsis) can occur if a sterile technique is not used.

You can reverse a body piercing fairly easily by removing the jewelry, which allows the hole to close. If you have not yet made a decision about piercing, it may be helpful to learn about making the choice to have a piercing and how to prevent problems.

If you have a problem with a body piercing site, check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have a concern about a body piercing?
Yes
Body piercing concern
No
Body piercing concern
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Could you be having a severe allergic reaction?
This is more likely if you have had a bad reaction to something in the past.
Yes
Possible severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
No
Possible severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
Are there any hives?
Hives are raised, red, itchy patches of skin. They usually have red borders and pale centers. They may seem to move from place to place on the skin.
Yes
Hives
No
Hives
Did the hives appear within the past 3 hours?
Yes
Hives appeared within past 3 hours
No
Hives appeared within past 3 hours
Are there any symptoms of infection?
Yes
Symptoms of infection
No
Symptoms of infection
Do you think you may have a fever?
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Are there red streaks leading away from the area or pus draining from it?
Yes
Red streaks or pus
No
Red streaks or pus
Do you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, peripheral arterial disease, or any surgical hardware in the area?
"Hardware" includes things like artificial joints, plates or screws, catheters, and medicine pumps.
Yes
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
No
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
Is there any swelling near the piercing?
Yes
Swelling at piercing site
No
Swelling at piercing site
Is the swelling severe and rapid?
Severe swelling may cut off blood flow and make the area below the piercing cool or painful.
Yes
Severe, rapid swelling near piercing site
No
Severe, rapid swelling near piercing site
Is the swelling over a joint, such as the ankle, elbow, or hip?
Yes
Swelling is over a joint
No
Swelling is over a joint
Has swelling lasted for more than 2 days?
Yes
Swelling for more than 2 days
No
Swelling for more than 2 days
Have you had symptoms of an infectious illness in the several months since you had the body piercing?
Yes
Symptoms of infectious illness
No
Symptoms of infectious illness
Do you think you may need a tetanus shot?
Yes
May need tetanus shot
No
May need tetanus shot
Is there any bleeding at the piercing site that has not slowed or stopped after 15 minutes of steady pressure?
Yes
Bleeding at piercing site
No
Bleeding at piercing site
Have you had any other problems with the piercing for more than 2 weeks?
Yes
Body piercing problem for more than 2 weeks
No
Body piercing problem for more than 2 weeks

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call911or other emergency services now.

Symptoms of infection may include:

  • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
  • Red streaks leading from the area.
  • Pus draining from the area.
  • A fever.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) may include:

  • The sudden appearance of raised, red areas (hives) all over the body.
  • Rapid swelling of the throat, mouth, or tongue.
  • Trouble breathing.

A severe reaction can be life-threatening. If you have had a bad allergic reaction to a substance before and are exposed to it again, treat any symptoms as an emergency. Even if the symptoms are mild at first, they may quickly become very severe.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

If proper technique and clean instruments are not used, there is a chance of getting an infectious disease when you get a tattoo or body piercing.

Symptoms of an infectious illness may include: 

  • An overall feeling of tiredness and lack of energy.
  • Dark urine or light-colored stool.
  • A new yellow tint to the skin or the whites of the eyes (jaundice).
  • Muscle or joint pain that lasts a long time.
  • Belly pain.
  • Fever.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

You may need a tetanus shot depending on how dirty the wound is and how long it has been since your last shot.

  • For a dirty wound that has things like dirt, saliva, or feces in it, you may need a shot if:
    • You haven't had a tetanus shot in the past 5 years.
    • You don't know when your last shot was.
  • For a clean wound, you may need a shot if:
    • You have not had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years.
    • You don't know when your last shot was.

Home Treatment

Caring for a piercing site

Most body piercing wounds can be cared for at home. If you received written instructions from the person who did the body piercing, follow those instructions carefully. This will help prevent problems and promote healing.

If you did not receive instructions for care of the piercing site, try the following:

  • Stop any bleeding by applying direct pressure to the piercing site.
  • Apply a cold pack to help reduce swelling or bruising. Never apply ice directly to the skin. This can cause tissue damage. Put a layer of fabric or a cloth towel between the cold pack and the skin.
  • Wash the wound for 5 minutes, 3 or 4 times a day, with large amounts of warm water.
  • Elevate the piercing area, if possible, to help reduce swelling.
  • If you have a mouth or tongue piercing, use an antibacterial mouthwash, such as Listerine or Scope, 3 or 4 times a day to help the healing process. Avoid smoking, and don't drink alcohol or eat spicy foods until the piercing site is fully healed.
  • Clean your jewelry with hot, soapy water.
  • Use of an antibiotic ointment has not been shown to affect healing. If you choose to use an antibiotic ointment, such as polymyxin B sulfate (for example, Polysporin) or bacitracin, apply the ointment lightly to the wound. If a skin rash or itching develops, stop using the ointment. The rash may be caused by an allergic reaction.
  • Avoid tight clothing over the piercing area. Tight clothing may irritate the piercing site. If irritation develops, it is best to bandage the site. Piercing sites usually will heal well with or without a bandage.
  • If the piercing site is red or you are worried about getting an infection, remove the jewelry. Soak the site in warm water for 20 minutes, 3 or 4 times a day. If it is too hard to soak the piercing site (for example, if you had your belly button pierced), apply a warm, moist cloth instead. If the site looks or feels worse during home treatment, check your symptoms to find out if you need to see your doctor. If the site does not get better after 48 hours of home treatment, call your doctor.

How fast the wound heals depends on the piercing site. The wound may take 4 to 6 weeks or longer to heal. Some sites may take up to a year to heal fully.

Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

Prevention

Preventing piercing problems

Do what you can to help prevent problems. Think about the following guidelines and information before making your decision to pierce a part of your body.

  • Get a tetanus shot before your body piercing if you have not had one in the past 10 years.
  • Choose an experienced person to do the body piercing. Ask the person doing the piercing what piercing tools he or she uses, how he or she cleans the equipment, and what safety standards he or she follows. Sterile gloves, sterilized equipment, and appropriate jewelry should be used. A fresh pair of gloves should be used for each procedure. Make sure that the operator washes his or her hands before putting on the gloves. Ask the operator to change his or her gloves if he or she answers the telephone or does anything else during your procedure.
  • Check the studio to see if it looks clean.
  • To prevent problems with metal allergies, use appropriate jewelry. Only buy jewelry that is surgical steel (300-grade), 14- or 18-karat gold, niobium, titanium, or approved acrylic products. Avoid jewelry made of other metals, particularly nickel. Many people develop an allergy to nickel.
  • To protect others from disease, tell the person doing the body pierce if you have had hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or HIV. If you have hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or HIV, make sure any jewelry you use is sterilized before it is used and is not shared with anyone else.
  • Check with your city or county health department to find out if there have been any complaints about the studio you are thinking of using.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

Questions to prepare for appointment

You can help your health professional diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • Who did the body piercing?
  • When was the piercing done?
  • Where on the body was the body piercing done?
  • What are your main symptoms? When did your symptoms start?
  • Were sterile instruments and jewelry used?
  • What type of jewelry was inserted? What was the jewelry made of?
  • Do you have other body piercings? If so, did these piercings cause problems?
  • What home treatment measures have you used to clean or treat the piercing site? Be sure to include any nonprescription ointments or creams you have applied to the wound.
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines do you take?
  • When was your last tetanus shot?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised May 3, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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