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Body Piercing Problems


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Body Piercing Problems

Overview

Body piercing is very popular. Many areas of the body are used for piercing.

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 lips, tongue, nose, eyebrow, navel, nipples, and genital area. Each body piercing site has its own normal healing time and its own set of possible problems. Careful aftercare at home 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 lips or tongue may cause speech, chewing, or swallowing problems or swelling that can block the throat.
    • Infection of a nipple can cause an abscess and scar the breast tissue.
    • The infection could be serious or life-threatening and involve the entire body (systemic).
  • Splitting or tearing of the skin, which may cause scar tissue to form.
  • Problems with the type of jewelry used, including allergies to a metal. Make sure to use the type of jewelry designed for your piercing site. Use only nonallergenic jewelry.
  • Other problems caused by the jewelry.
    • Jewelry in the lips or tongue can cause chipping or cracking of the teeth, gum problems, and trouble 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. Piercings in the penis can change the urine flow, cause recurring genital warts, and result in erection problems.
  • Damage to blood vessels or nerves under the skin.
  • Scarring of the piercing site.

If a sterile technique isn't used, there's a chance of spreading diseases, such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or tetanus. Blood infections (sepsis) can occur if a sterile technique isn't used.

You can reverse a body piercing fairly easily by removing the jewelry. This allows the hole to close.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have a concern about a body piercing?
Yes
Body piercing concern
No
Body piercing concern
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female

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.
Could you be having a severe allergic reaction?
This is more likely if you have had a bad reaction to something in the past.
Yes
Possible severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
No
Possible severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
Are there any hives?
Hives are raised, red, itchy patches of skin. They usually have red borders and pale centers. They may seem to move from place to place on the skin.
Yes
Hives
No
Hives
Did the hives appear within the past 3 hours?
Yes
Hives appeared within past 3 hours
No
Hives appeared within past 3 hours
Are there any symptoms of infection?
Yes
Symptoms of infection
No
Symptoms of infection
Do you think you may have a fever?
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Are there red streaks leading away from the area or pus draining from it?
Yes
Red streaks or pus
No
Red streaks or pus
Do you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, peripheral arterial disease, or any surgical hardware in the area?
"Hardware" includes things like artificial joints, plates or screws, catheters, and medicine pumps.
Yes
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
No
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
Is there any swelling near the piercing?
Yes
Swelling at piercing site
No
Swelling at piercing site
Is the swelling severe and rapid?
Severe swelling may cut off blood flow and make the area below the piercing cool or painful.
Yes
Severe, rapid swelling near piercing site
No
Severe, rapid swelling near piercing site
Is the swelling over a joint, such as the ankle, elbow, or hip?
Yes
Swelling is over a joint
No
Swelling is over a joint
Has swelling lasted for more than 2 days?
Yes
Swelling for more than 2 days
No
Swelling for more than 2 days
Have you had symptoms of an infectious illness in the several months since you had the body piercing?
Yes
Symptoms of infectious illness
No
Symptoms of infectious illness
Do you think you may need a tetanus shot?
Yes
May need tetanus shot
No
May need tetanus shot
Is there any bleeding at the piercing site that has not slowed or stopped after 15 minutes of steady pressure?
Yes
Bleeding at piercing site
No
Bleeding at piercing site
Have you had any other problems with the piercing for more than 2 weeks?
Yes
Body piercing problem for more than 2 weeks
No
Body piercing problem for more than 2 weeks

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, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or 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.

Usually found in dirt and soil, tetanus bacteria typically enter the body through a wound. Wounds may include a bite, a cut, a puncture, a burn, a scrape, insect bites, or any injury that may cause broken skin.

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.
  • Fever.
  • 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.

Self-Care

Careful aftercare of your body piercing can help prevent problems and promote healing. If you received written instructions from the person who did the body piercing, follow those instructions carefully. If you didn't get instructions for care of the piercing site, try using these.

  • Stop any bleeding.

    Do this by applying direct pressure to the piercing site.

  • Apply a cold pack.

    This can 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.

  • Keep the wound clean.

    Clean the area 2 times a day with a mild soap and water, gently removing any buildup on the jewelry. Wipe away any moisture around the jewelry.

  • Elevate the piercing area, if you can.

    This will help reduce swelling.

  • Take extra care with a mouth or tongue piercing.
    • Use an antiseptic (alcohol-free) mouthwash to rinse your mouth 3 or 4 times a day.
    • Use ice chips or cool liquids to help reduce swelling and pain.
    • Avoid smoking, and don't drink alcohol or eat spicy foods until a mouth or tongue piercing site is fully healed.
  • 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.

  • Don't remove the jewelry if the piercing site is red or may be infected.

    A little bleeding, swelling, or redness is normal after a piercing. As it heals, if you notice new redness in the area, you can treat it with warm compresses and an antibacterial ointment. But if it isn't better in 5 to 7 days, it could be infected.

    Symptoms of an infection may include fever and chills, increased pain, swelling, warmth or redness, or pus draining from the area. An infection can be serious.

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.

How long it takes to heal

Each body piercing site has its own normal healing time. Common sites usually heal within the time frames listed below. Healing depends on many things. It can depend on how big the piercing is and how thick the tissue is at the site. Your own ability to heal can also affect healing time.

Piercing site healing times

Piercing site

Healing time

Ear cartilage (curve of ear)

2 to 4 months

Nostril (nose)

2 to 8 months

Face (includes the earlobes, eyebrows, and lips)

6 to 8 weeks

Inside of the mouth or tongue

3 to 6 weeks

Nipple

6 to 12 months

Genitals (clitoral hood, labia, and penis)

6 to 12 months

Belly button (navel)

Up to 9 months

A piercing may not heal as fast if it gets infected or irritated or if scar tissue forms. You may need to see your doctor if your piercing does not seem to be healing.

Safe jewelry choices

Not all jewelry is appropriate for body piercing. Choose jewelry for body piercing sites that:

  • Is removable.
    • If you have your mouth pierced and you use oral jewelry, make sure it can be removed. For example, you should be able to unscrew the ball on one end of a barbell-shaped device to make the device easy to insert and take out.
  • Allows for full cleaning of the piercing site.
    • Ear studs or other jewelry designed for the ears are not appropriate for other body sites. Other body sites are hard to clean or may easily tear or snag if you use jewelry designed for the ear in them.
  • Is smoothly polished, free of nicks, scratches, or jagged surfaces that might damage the skin.
    • The back of an earring can pinch and damage tissue when used in places other than the earlobe. Backs of earrings are not smooth enough to prevent skin and tissue damage.
  • Is the right thickness for the body site being pierced.
    • Jewelry that is too thin can tear right through the skin. The thickness of the average ear stud is too small for most other body piercing sites.
    • Jewelry that is too thick for the site can cause an abscess, a cyst, or scar tissue formation.
    • Jewelry that is too large can easily catch on clothing.
    • Jewelry that is too small can be absorbed into the body tissues.
  • Is made from metals that do not cause allergic reactions.
    • Only use nonallergenic jewelry, such as surgical steel, gold, or titanium, in a new piercing. Do not use nickel or brass-plated jewelry.
  • Is sterilized before it is put into the piercing site.
    • Choose jewelry that has not been used or worn or that has been sterilized.

When to call for help during self-care

Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:

  • New or worse signs of an allergic reaction, such as swelling, hives, itching, vomiting, or trouble breathing.
  • New or worse signs of infection, such as redness, warmth, swelling, pus, or a fever.
  • Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.

Learn more

Preparing For Your Appointment

Credits

Current as of: November 15, 2021

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

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