14th December, 20218 min read

Body piercing: What to expect and how to prevent, spot and treat infection

Medical reviewer:
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:
Rosa Bowden
Rosa Bowden
Last reviewed: 09/12/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Overview

A piercing is when a small hole is made in the skin, usually so that a piece of jewellery is inserted into it.

If you’re considering getting a part of your body pierced, it’s important to consider all of the risks that come with getting a piercing. Read on to learn more about what to expect before, during and after getting a piercing and how to avoid infection.

What are the types of piercings?

Body piercing is certainly not a new trend. It’s known that as far back as the ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilizations people were decorating their bodies with jewellery and piercings. Nowadays piercings are more popular than ever, with surveys suggesting that between 25-35% of 13-29 year olds have a piercing in some part of their body that’s not their earlobe.

There are many parts of the body that you can pierce – from ears to belly buttons, from tongues to nipples.

Some of the most common areas of the body you can get pierced are:

  • your ears – including the earlobe, helix (the outside of your upper ear) and tragus (the inside of your middle ear)
  • your nose – including the ala (outside of your nose) and the septum (in between your nostrils)
  • your lips
  • your tongue
  • your belly button

Nipple and genital piercings are now quite common and are growing in popularity. Read about vagina and penis piercings to find out more.

Some less common places you can get pierced include the neck, knuckles, cheek, chest and uvula (the piece of flesh that dangles at the back of your throat).

What to do before getting a piercing to reduce the risk of infection

If you’re considering getting a piercing, the first step is to find a qualified piercing artist that makes you feel comfortable. Do your research to find the right piercing studio or shop, and ask people you know with piercings for their recommendations. You should also look at online reviews and images on the piercer’s website or social media pages that show how skilled they are.

When you get to the studio you should ask questions and look around to be sure safety standards are being followed. You should be able to answer “yes” to the following questions:

  • is the piercing artist trained and experienced in the type of piercing you want?
  • is the studio well organised and clean?
  • is the studio well lit so the piercer can see what they’re doing?
  • do they use an autoclave – a piece of equipment used to sterilise (kill germs on) instruments such as jewellery and needles?
  • have they passed recent spore tests to check if equipment has been properly sterilised?
  • are all jewellery and tools kept in sealed packages?
  • does the piercer wash their hands and use a clean pair of gloves for each person?
  • do they use disposable needles for each client that they throw away into a container mounted on the wall marked “biohazard”?
  • do they provide you with detailed written aftercare instructions?

Check what age restrictions are in place and bring a form of identification such as your passport or drivers licence. If you’re under 18 you will probably need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Getting pierced safely when you have allergies or a health condition

If you have a metal allergy, discuss this with your piercer. They may suggest using jewellery that is made from hypoallergenic materials, such as surgical stainless steel, gold, niobium or titanium. These could also be the safest option if you’re unaware of any metal allergies to prevent you from having a reaction.

Speak to a doctor first if you have a health condition such as heart disease, a bleeding problem, or diabetes.

Ear piercings

What to expect when getting a piercing

The procedure itself will depend on the type of piercing you’re getting. Usually your skin will be cleaned with alcohol or antiseptic. A straight, sterilised needle will be used to puncture the skin and then jewellery is inserted. The needle is disposed of and the piercer will talk you through how to look after your piercing.

Some shops might use a piercing gun instead of a needle for piercing your earlobes. However, piercing guns cannot be properly sterilised, so they’re not recommended by professional piercers and shouldn’t be used to pierce anything other than your earlobes.

Aftercare for ear piercings or body piercings

After getting your ears or another body part pierced, it’s quite normal for the area to be swollen and tender. If you get your tongue pierced the area may be very swollen. There’s also a chance that your piercing will bleed. If the swelling or bleeding lasts any longer than a few days, contact your doctor.

You should avoid touching your piercing apart from when you’re cleaning it. Avoid swimming until your piercing has healed to avoid infection. If you’ve had a genital piercing you should avoid having sex, and if you have a mouth piercing you should avoid oral sex until after your piercing has healed.

How to clean a piercing to prevent or treat infection

After you get a piercing, you should clean the skin around it twice a day for 10 to 15 days using antibacterial soap and water. To clean your piercing you should:

  • wash your hands using soap and water before touching your piercing
  • use warm, salty water to remove any crusted discharge from around the area
  • gently wash the area using soap and water
  • carefully turn the piercing while you wash it
  • use a paper towel to dry the area. Don’t use a regular towel as they can carry bacteria and get caught in the piercing
  • avoid over-cleaning your piercing as this can irritate the skin and delay healing

If you have a mouth piercing, such as a tongue piercing, you should gargle with salty water or alcohol-free mouthwash. Try sucking ice chips and drinking cool liquids to take down any swelling.

Healing times for different body piercings

Healing times vary depending on the location of the piercing. Some of the common sites can take:

  • 6-8 weeks for the earlobe
  • 6 months to 1 year for the belly button
  • between 4 and 12 months for cartilage piercings
  • up to 6 months for the nose
  • 2-4 weeks for the tongue
  • 2-3 months for the lip
  • 6 weeks to 6 months for the nipple

You shouldn’t remove the jewellery (even at night) until the piercing has fully healed or until advised by your piercer. This helps prevent infection and stops the hole from closing.

Piercing risks

Piercing a body part can sometimes come with complications. Even if you’re careful, piercings can lead to:

  • localised skin or cartilage infections – this is the most common side effect, particularly for belly button and ear piercings
  • allergic reactions such as allergic contact dermatitis – this is often a reaction to jewellery that’s made of nickel
  • scarring, including keloid scarring
  • trauma to the skin (such as an earlobe tear) that occurs when the jewellery gets caught or pulled

Never get pierced by someone who isn't a qualified professional or in an unclear environment as this puts you at greater risk of infection and complications. In rare cases it can lead to serious infections such as infective endocarditis, sepsis and toxic shock syndrome.

Needles should always be sterilised and you should never be pierced with a needle that’s been used on another person as this can lead to the spread of bloodborne infections such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.

There are some complications that only happen for particular piercings. For instance, mouth piercings can result in oral complications such as receding gums, chipped or damaged teeth and speech impediments. Nipple piercings can cause difficulties breastfeeding, breast abscesses, skin abrasions and toxic shock syndrome. Nose piercings can sometimes be accidentally inhaled or swallowed.

When to see a doctor

Speak to a doctor if you notice the following symptoms:

  • you have a high or low temperature
  • the skin around your piercing is swollen, very hot, painful and red
  • your piercing is bleeding or leaking yellow, white or green discharge

These could indicate that your piercing is infected. Don’t remove any jewellery unless your doctor tells you otherwise. You may need antibiotics in order to treat the infection.

If you suspect you have an infection and notice the following symptoms, call an ambulance or visit emergency services immediately:

  • you’re feeling unwell
  • you’re shivery
  • you feel confused, sleepy or lose consciousness
  • you’re showing any other signs of sepsis

Your health questions answered

  • How do I treat an infected ear piercing?

    If you have an infected cartilage piercing you should speak to a doctor as you may need to take antibiotics to treat the infection. If the infection is minor and in your earlobe, you can treat it at home by cleaning the area 3 times a day using a saltwater solution. Once the infection has cleared, stick to cleaning your piercing twice a day until it has fully healed.

Key takeaways

  • the most common places to get pierced are the ears, nose, lips, tongue and belly button
  • if you’re thinking about getting a piercing you should find a qualified professional who makes you feel comfortable
  • after getting a piercing it’s quite normal for the area to be swollen and tender and sometimes it will bleed
  • clean your piercing twice a day with soap and water
  • healing times vary depending on the location of the piercing
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