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Piercings: How to prevent complications

Medically reviewed on March 6, 2018.

Ears. Lips. Bellybuttons. Eyebrows. Piercings are popular, especially among adolescents and young adults. But piercings can cause complications. Find out how certain safety precautions, the placement of your piercing and how well you care for it can affect your risk of infection and proper healing.

Know the risks

A piercing is the creation of an opening in a part of the body for the insertion of jewelry. It's rarely done with a numbing agent (anesthetic).

Any type of piercing poses a risk of complications, including:

  • Allergic reactions. Some piercing jewelry — particularly pieces made of nickel — can cause allergic reactions.
  • Oral complications. Jewelry worn in tongue piercings can chip and crack your teeth and damage your gums. Tongue swelling after a new piercing can interfere with chewing and swallowing — and sometimes breathing.
  • Skin infections. This might cause redness, pain, swelling or a pus-like discharge after a piercing.
  • Other skin problems. Piercing can lead to scars and raised areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue (keloids).
  • Bloodborne diseases. If the equipment used to do the piercing is contaminated with infected blood, you can contract various bloodborne diseases, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tetanus and HIV.
  • Tearing or trauma. Jewelry can get caught and torn out accidentally, potentially requiring stitches or other repair.

You might need medication or other treatment if you develop an allergic reaction, infection or other skin problem near the piercing.

Keloid

A keloid — a raised area caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue — can develop in or around a piercing.

Make sure you're ready

Before you get a piercing, think carefully about it. Consider the location of the piercing and whether you'll be able to conceal the piercing if necessary — such as at work.

If you're unsure about the piercing or worry that you might regret it someday, consider waiting. Don't let yourself be pressured into getting a piercing, and don't get a piercing if you're under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

If you're sure you want to get a piercing, talk to friends who have them. Find out if they have suggestions or regrets.

Insist on safety precautions

To make sure your piercing is done safely, ask these questions:

  • Who does the piercings? Don't attempt to pierce yourself or allow an untrained friend to do the piercing. Go to a reputable piercing studio where employees are properly trained.

    Regulation requirements and licensing standards vary from state to state. Check with your city, county or state health department for information on local licensing and regulations.

  • Does the piercer wear gloves? Make sure the piercer washes his or her hands and wears a fresh pair of disposable gloves for each piercing.
  • Does the piercer use proper equipment? For earlobe piercing, piercers often use an ear-piercing gun to push an earring through the earlobe. For other body piercings, piercers typically push a needle through a body part and then insert a piece of jewelry into the hole. Make sure the piercer uses only fresh, sterile needles.
  • Does the piercer sterilize nondisposable equipment? Make sure the piercer uses a heat-sterilization machine (autoclave) to sterilize all nondisposable equipment after each piercing. Instruments and supplies that can't be sterilized with an autoclave — including drawer handles, tables and sinks — should be disinfected with a commercial disinfectant or bleach solution after each use.
  • Does the piercer use hypoallergenic jewelry? Look for surgical stainless steel, titanium, niobium, or 14- or 18-karat gold.

Take good care of your piercing

The skin around a new piercing might be swollen, red and tender for a few days. It might bleed slightly. If the swelling, redness and bleeding last longer than a few days, contact your doctor. Prompt treatment can help prevent potentially serious complications.

To prevent infection and encourage healing:

  • Clean oral piercings with mouthwash. If you've had your tongue, lip or cheek pierced, rinse with an alcohol-free, antiseptic mouthwash after each meal and before you go to bed. After your piercing, use a new soft-bristled toothbrush to avoid introducing bacteria into your mouth. Once the area has healed, take the piercing out at night and brush it to remove plaque. Consider taking it out when eating or during strenuous activity, as well.
  • Clean skin piercings. If you've had your skin pierced, clean the site twice a day with soap and water. Be sure to wash your hands before cleaning your piercing site.
  • Avoid swimming. Stay out of pools, hot tubs, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water while your piercing is healing.
  • Don't fiddle with your piercings. Don't touch a new piercing or twist the jewelry unless you're cleaning it. Keep clothing away from the piercing, too. Excessive rubbing or friction can irritate your skin and delay healing.
  • Keep the jewelry in place. Most piercings heal within about six weeks, but some might take several months or longer to heal. To maintain the piercing, leave the jewelry in place during this time, even at night, to keep the hole from closing.

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