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 breastfeed 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
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Passing out (losing consciousness). Or you may feel very lightheaded or suddenly feel weak, confused, or restless.
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.
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.
- Nausea and vomiting.
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.
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.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
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 topicMaking 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?
Current as of: June 26, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor MD - Emergency Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine