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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

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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

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