Getting a body piercing
If you decide to have a body piercing, make sure you find a reputable, licensed body piercing shop or piercer.
Piercing of the ears, nose, belly button and tongue are especially popular among teenagers and young adults. They are all fairly safe procedures, as long as they're performed by a licensed specialist and care is taken by the piercer and yourself to avoid infection.
Finding an approved piercer
Most local councils keep registers of approved piercers who have passed hygiene and safety standards, and who are regularly inspected by health and safety officers.
Contact your local borough, city or county council for further information.
Do not try to carry out body piercing yourself. This can be very dangerous as there is a high risk of infection or scarring.
If you've already found a body piercing shop, take a look around before you go ahead with the piercing. Check for any potential health risks. You should be able to answer "yes" to all the questions on our safety checklist.
Nowadays, bacterial infection is the main risk associated with body piercing. Sometimes an abscess (build-up of pus) forms around the piercing site, which can become very serious if left untreated.
Read more about the risks of body piercing.
How body piercing is carried out
The skin is disinfected with an alcohol solution and allowed to dry before it is pierced using sterile piercing equipment.
Only earlobe and ear cartilage piercings can be done with a piercing gun, by either a jeweller or a professional body piercer. Refuse a piercing if the piercer intends to use a gun on any other part of the body.
All other types of piercing must be carried out using a hollow needle, which is pushed through the skin and tissue of the body part. You'll normally feel a quick, sharp sting while the skin is being pierced.
After a piercing, the area may bleed slightly and it may be tender, itchy and bruised for a few weeks.
Read more about how piercings are carried out.
Follow the specialist's advice after you've had your piercing. This will usually involve keeping the area clean and dry, as well as recognising the signs of infection.
Keeping the area dry is especially important – do not use antiseptic fluids or creams, alcohol or salt water for at least three days. If the piercing was done properly, there should be no need to use any of these at any time.
Do not touch or fiddle with the area and do not turn the piercing. If a crust develops over the piercing, do not remove it – these form naturally and are the body's way of protecting the pierced site.
Read more about caring for a body piercing.
Healing times for the most common body piercings are as follows:
- earlobe – six weeks
- top of the ear – at least three to four months
- belly button – up to a year
- tongue – one to two months
- nose – two to three months
Body piercing risks
Bacterial infection is the main risk associated with body piercings.
An abscess (build-up of pus) may form around the piercing site. If left untreated, this has the potential to cause a scar and may need to be surgically drained. In some cases, it may develop into blood poisoning (sepsis) or toxic shock syndrome, which can be very serious. Blood poisoning can also occur without an abscess.
Tongue piercings carry a small risk of bacterial infection, despite the high number of bacteria present inside the mouth. Nevertheless, it would be wise to brush your teeth or cleanse your mouth before asking for a tongue piercing. Bleeding from the vein under the front of the tongue can also occur if the piercing is too close to it.
Earlobe piercings are generally safe, but care must still be taken to keep the piercing clean and dry.
You can reduce your risk of developing an infection by keeping the piercing dry. Before touching the piercing, make sure you wash your hands with soap and water and dry them with a disposable towel first. However, you should try to avoid touching it if possible – there is no need to turn it.
See body piercing self-care for more information.
Viruses causing hepatitis or AIDS used to be the main risk from piercings, but now all registered premises use disposable sterile needles and other equipment, so the risk of passing on these infections should now be almost non-existent.
Other general risks
Other possible problems that come with body piercing are:
- bleeding and blood loss, especially in areas of the body with a lot of blood vessels, such as the tongue
- swelling of the skin around the piercing
- scarring and the formation of keloid (a type of oversized scar) – tell your body piercer if you know that your skin has a tendency to form [keloid scars]
Any piercing that interferes with the normal functioning of the body carries a higher risk of causing problems. Specific piercings each present their own risks, for example:
- Oral (tongue) piercings can cause speech impediments and chipped teeth if the jewellery wears away tooth enamel. There's also a higher risk of bleeding and the risk that your airways will become blocked.
- Genital piercings can interfere with the functions of the genitals, sometimes making sex and urination difficult and painful. This is particularly common with piercings on and around the penis.
- Ear cartilage piercings (at the top of the ear) are riskier than earlobe piercings. If the site becomes infected, you may develop a painful abscess. This is because the skin is close to the underlying cartilage and pus can become trapped. Antibiotics do not successfully treat this problem. Surgery is usually required to remove the affected cartilage. This can lead to a deformed ear.
- Nose piercings are riskier than earlobe piercings as the inner surface of the nose (which can't be disinfected) holds bacteria that can cause infection.
What happens during a body piercing
Before carrying out a body piercing, make sure the piercer explains any complications that may arise.
You'll usually need to sign a consent form to confirm that you wish to go ahead. Children under the age of 16 may need to have a parent or guardian with them.
The skin is disinfected with an alcohol solution and allowed to dry before it's pierced. The piercing equipment must be sterile.
Earlobe and ear cartilage piercing
During an ear piercing, a hole is made through the fatty tissue of the earlobe or the cartilage at the top of the ear, and an earring is inserted.
This is often done with a disposable piercing gun, either by a jeweller or a professional body piercer. Piercing with a gun should only be carried out on the ears and not on any other part of the body (except the nose, in some cases).
Most piercing guns have sterile disposable cartridges to help ensure that the piercing is clean and sterile. If you don't want your ears to be pierced with a disposable piercing gun, you can go to a professional piercer who can pierce ears using a sterilised hollow needle.
Whichever way you choose to have your ears pierced, make sure it happens in a clean, no-smoking environment. The person carrying out the piercing should wash their hands first, disinfect the area of skin, wear surgical gloves during the process and throw them away straight after use.
If you feel at all unsure about the person who's doing the piercing or where it's being done, go somewhere else.
Other types of piercing
All other types of piercing should be carried out using a hollow needle, which is pushed through the skin and tissue of the body part being pierced. This ensures that there are clear entrance and exit holes. A piece of jewellery, usually a decorative bar or ring, is then inserted into the hole.
Some other types of piercing are discussed in more detail below.
A belly button piercing is usually made just above the navel. A curved bar is inserted through the hole and metal balls are screwed on each end. A small metal ring fastened with a clip-on ball may also be used.
Special care must be taken with a belly button piercing as this area is difficult to keep clean and dry. You'll need to wash the belly button with soap and water before the piercing. Make sure the piercer cleans the area properly first with an alcohol solution.
Afterwards, you should wear any belts well below the area until it's fully healed. Expose it to air as much as possible.
A hole is pierced through the skin or cartilage of the nostril. A nose stud is then inserted through the hole.
There are some guns that are designed especially for the soft outer parts of the nose, not the areas of cartilage (septum).
The tongue is clamped to hold it in position while it's pierced. A bar with a screw-on metal ball at each end is inserted through the hole.
The piercing is normally made through the end of the nipple. A thin metal ring or straight bar is then inserted.
After a piercing
When a piercing is finished, the area may bleed slightly. This should stop after a few minutes, although it may bleed again for short periods over the next few days.
There may also be some clear or whitish-yellow odourless discharge that forms a crust over the jewellery during the first few days after a piercing. This is normal and is not usually a sign of infection. Do not touch any crust that forms, as it can help protect against infection.
A new piercing can be tender, itchy and bruised for a few weeks after it is carried out.
It is important to take good care of your piercing to reduce your chances of problems developing. This involves keeping the area dry and recognising the signs of infection. See caring for a body piercing for more information.
What to do before having a body piercing
A few days before having your piercing, visit the shop to check for any potential health risks.
Make sure you can answer "yes" to the following questions before going ahead:
- Do they use a clean pair of disposable surgical gloves for each customer?
- Do they wash their hands regularly and use disposable paper towels to dry them?
- Is the shop clean, with wipe-clean surfaces throughout (including the floor)?
- Do they use single-use needles and discard them after each piercing?
- Are instruments kept in sealed packaging ready for use, or in an autoclave (steriliser) until needed?
- Have the earrings been pre-sterilised?
- If the piercer is piercing just one ear, will they take the earring from an unopened, pre-sterilised pack of two (rather than using a loose earring left over from a previous piercing)?
- Is the piercer wearing clean, practical clothing, with long hair tied back?
- Have they covered any cuts or wounds on their hands with waterproof dressings?
- Is the jewellery used appropriate for the type of piercing?
- Is it made of non-nickel metal?
- Does the piercer have a clear policy regarding age restrictions and parental consent?
- Is the piercing area a no-smoking zone?
- Are food and drink banned in the piercing area?
- Are animals prohibited from entering the shop?
What to do after having a body piercing
After having a piercing, it is important to keep the area clean and dry.
You may be advised to gently clean the area with a saline solution. However, the piercing should be cleaned no more than is necessary to keep it clean as over-cleaning can irritate the skin and delay healing.
Using a saline solution or any other watery substance (such as alcohol solutions) involves fiddling with the piercing and getting it wet, so it's usually best to avoid using them for at least the first three days after the piercing is carried out. Keeping the piercing dry is more important.
If you have an ear or facial piercing, having baths rather than showers will help to keep the piercing dry. Lower body piercings are harder to keep dry, so it may be best to sponge-clean your body for the first three days, avoiding the pierced area.
Wash your hands with warm water and antibacterial soap and dry them with a disposable towel before touching or washing your piercing.
Ensure that any clothing and bedding that may come into contact with the area around the piercing is clean.
If you get an infection
If your piercing becomes infected, the surrounding skin may be red and swollen. It will probably hurt when you touch it and may produce a yellow or green discharge.
If you have a fever or any of the above symptoms, see your doctor immediately. A delay in treatment can result in a serious infection.
Leave your jewellery in unless your doctor tells you to take it out. This will ensure proper drainage and may prevent a painful collection of pus (abscess) from forming.
In many cases, the infection can be treated without losing the piercing. Minor infections may be treated with antibiotic cream, and a more serious infection may need antibiotic tablets. Your doctor will be able to give you advice about which treatment is best for you.