Piercing Infections

Preventing Infection | What is not an infection | Symptoms of Piercing Infection | Treating Piercing Infections

Infected piercings are, in truth, rarer than most people think. Often when people talk about having had a piercing infection they have simply misdiagnosed another problem. This guide goes into detail about what infections look like.

TL;DR –Too much information? For a shorter version try our quick reference guide here! 

Preventing Body Piercing Infections.

Your body has good defences against unwanted bacteria and, as long as you are careful, the real risk of infection is actually quite low as can be found out about here in our guide on how piercings heal. To decrease your risk of infection even further here are a few simple steps you should think about:

1. Think about how you are getting pierced. This is perhaps the most important consideration as not all piercers and piercing studios are the same and its worth knowing about their reputation before you go. Things to consider include:

Sterilisation does not occur through boiling, burning or using alcohol on something, many bacteria will survive all of these methods. To sterilise something you need a device called an autoclave which uses both pressure and heat to destroy bacteria.

Items such as sewing needles or store brought jewellery straight out of the packet are not sterile either.

Rooms like kitchens and bathrooms are used for different purposes and different types of potentially harmful bacteria live in them which won’t normally be in a specific studio room.

2. Piercing guns themselves cannot be sterilised as they are made from plastic and would melt. Only the earrings and the cartilage that holds them are sterile. This could increase the possible risk of contamination and infection. For more information try our piercing gun article.

3. Always boil the water you use to clean your piercing with. Hot water is really good for your piercing but warm water from your tap sits around inside a boiler where bacteria can gather and multiply. Using a kettle to boil your water is OK but the best way to heat your water is in a microwave or to thoroughly clean and descale your kettle before use!

4. Always wash your hands before touching the piercing. Your hands come into contact with a lot of bacteria in day to day life i.e. cooking, holding public hand rails and using the toilet.

5. Wash things that come into contact with your piercing. Depending on where your piercing is you may want to consider: washing your bed linen and bath towels, changing your toothbrush, not using cloth handkerchiefs for a while, wiping down phone ear pieces and music ear phones, cleaning reading glasses and using an antibacterial washing up liquid on drinking glasses and mugs.

6. Keep things that come into contact with your piercing to a bare minimum. I.e. Tight shirts, high trousers, long hair, and make up brushes and pads. All these things could accidentally introduce bacteria into the piercing when you interact with them.

7. Keep other people away from your piercings. Other people have dirty hands too but everybody also has something called a skin ‘flora’ which is a series of bacteria and micro-organisms that live naturally on your skin. Yours are not harmful to you (in fact they are often beneficial) but somebody else’s could be.

Saliva and genital productions also hold more harmful bacteria (including diseases) so it is best to try and avoid kissing or unprotected sexual contact with the piercing site.

Ensure you are not sharing bathing towels with anyone else as they can harbour that persons dead skin cells, bacteria and other nasties!

8. Avoid large bodies of water. This includes things such as the sea, lakes, rivers, swimming pools and your bath. These places all contain chemicals, bacteria and (often) other people’s wastes! All these things can cause problems with your healing.

If you need to use a bath, using an antibacterial cleaner and rinsing well before use should make it safe to soak the piercing in.

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What is NOT usually an infection.

Since piercings heal so differently to normal wounds there are certain things which can happen during the process that don’t seem normal to most people and often get blamed as infections when they are actually different (treatable) problems.

1. White / clear / light yellow runny-discharge: This is usually a substance called serous fluid (nicknamed ‘lymph’ by some) which contains used up white blood cells and other things which have been healing your piercing. It is not pus but ‘body garbage’ and is normal to see this throughout your healing time.

2. Crusted yellow coloured stuff: This is what serous fluid looks like when it dries. It is important to soak, rather than pick or rub at crusties because they can pull at and flake off into the healing piercing, damaging the delicate new tissue.

3. Swelling: Certain types of piercings are prone to more swelling that others (i.e. mouth) but most modest swelling can be expected during the first 2 weeks of healing for most piercings and whenever the piercing is knocked, slept on or damaged in any other way. Only very extreme swelling should be considered abnormal such as when the jewellery begins to look in danger or the body part appears twice its normal size.

4. White, oily / waxy, cheesy smelling discharge: This is usually only seen in healed piercings, particularly stretched piercings and is sometimes affectionately referred to as ‘ear cheese.’ Its medical name is sebum and is the stuff your body uses to keep your skin and hair waterproof and to stop it drying out. It sometimes collects on piercing jewellery, particularly if you have oily skin or hair.

5. Redness, discomfort and itching: Redness and discomfort can be expected during the first two weeks of healing time, as well as whenever the piercing is knocked, slept on or damaged in any other way. Itching is usually a sign of healing but sometimes it points to other problems such as the piercing needing cleaning, salt needing to be washed off the skin, irritation, allergic reaction to jewellery or rejection.

6. Bumps / Spots: The majority of bumps that appear on a piercing are not usually a sign of an infected piercing. There are many different types of bumps which can appear on piercings for a variety of reasons and each of them need slightly different treatment. Soft bumps that appear suddenly should be considered suspicious, however.

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Signs of a body piercing infection.

The following signs can point to your piercing being infected. If you are having trouble with a piercing and think there is a possibility that you may have an infection you should always err on the side of caution and visit a doctor or trained medical staff.

1. Intense and un-ignorable pain: The pain of an infected piercing is often similar to a toothache and can be described as constant, throbbing a bit like a pulse and bad enough to want to take painkillers for. Normally piercings will only feel sore if knocked or touched.

2. Heat: The piercing site often feels hot or warmer than normal body temperature when touched. You may also feel a burning sensation, although often cartilage piercings suffer from this when irritated.

3. Extreme swelling: With the exception of a few piercings (Mouth and genital) puffy, ‘inflated,’ like swelling where the body part looks much larger than normal is usually a symptom. Here are some examples of extreme swelling for you to compare.

4. Grey, green, or dark yellow pus:This type of discharge is usually thick, sticky or lumpy and smells bad. It most often looks like the snot you get when you have a cold and often smells like rotten fruit.

5. White ‘cottage cheese’ discharge: This can smell a little but may not be overly ‘bad’ smelling. However the discharge itself is bright or off white and very lumpy like cottage cheese.

6. Soft, fluid filled bump: Bumps that appear very quickly, that are soft and squidgy like a water balloon and leak fluid are most likely to be abscesses. They may sometimes have a ‘head’ like a pimple that is yellow. For more information try reading our guide here.

7. Generally feeling a bit unwell: You may feel a bit ‘fluish,’ like you have a cold or nauseous and have shivers or chills. You should keep an eye on symptoms like these and contact a doctor if they get worse or aren’t getting any better within a day or so.

8. Feeling very ‘weird’ or overcome: You may feel dizzy, breathless or confused and have a temperature. This is a serious symptom. Please see a doctor straight away and do not attempt to treat yourself at home.

9.  Lines or discolouration stretching away from the piercing: This could be the sign of a more aggressive piercing infection and should not be treated at home. This is a serious symptom. Please see a doctor straight away and do not attempt to treat yourself at home.

10. Swollen glands: If the glands in your neck, groin or armpits become swollen or uncomfortable it could be a sign you have a more aggressive infection. This is a serious symptom. Please see a doctor straight away and do not attempt to treat yourself at home.

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Treating a piercing infection.

It is possible to treat a mild piercing infection at home. However it should be mentioned that this carries risks and its generally advised that you should always seek professional medical help when dealing with infections, especially if you are concerned or if the infection gets worse or gets no better within 3 days or so.

You will need to get hold of an antiseptic gel, spray, liquid, soap or natural oil. Ranges like Germolene, TCP and Savlon do such products and tea tree oil or lavender oil is also antiseptic. It is important to avoid creams because they can linger inside the piercing creating a moist area for bacteria to breed.

Self treatment method.

1. First begin treatment by doing a saline soak as normal (see our aftercare guides for instructions). You could choose to add in a chamomile tea bag if your piercing is very sore or swollen also, as chamomile tea is very soothing and a natural anti-inflammatory.

2. When you have finished drying the piercing apply the antiseptic thoroughly to the front and the back of the piercing. If you are treating a suspected infected mouth piercing you may need a medicated mouthwash such as Corsodyl or Oraldene.

3. You could also take painkillers to help reduce your discomfort and calm any swelling you may have (such as ibuprofen). Be sure to read the patient information leaflet or talk with a pharmacist before using anything.

4. The most important rule about dealing with an infected piercing at home is to never take out the jewellery. If you let the hole close when you have an infection it could become trapped inside your skin with nowhere to drain, causing worse problems.

If you are treating the infected piercing with antibiotics under the advice of a doctor they may request that you remove the jewellery. This will be because the infection can spread into the pores of your jewellery and while antibiotics will treat the infection in your body they won’t be able to reach the jewellery. Don’t let this put you off seeing a doctor, most doctors will try their best to treat the infection without removing the jewellery where they can.

If you would like further body piercing help we do offer a piercing advice service where you can contact a professional piercer. We are, however, no substitute for a doctor and it’s always best to seek proper medical help where you can!

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