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I think my piercing is infected, what should I do?

Infection will usually occur during the healing phase of the piercing, not necessarily as a result of the piercing process itself. Any type of surgical procedure, whether it is a tongue piercing or a kidney transplant, carries a risk of infection even if sterile technique is followed carefully. Good hand-washing is essential for the prevention of infection.

Common symptoms of infection include:

  • Pain and tenderness
  • Excessive redness around the piercing
  • Prolonged bleeding
  • Discharge of yellow or green pus
  • A change in your skin colour around the piercing area
  • Area will feel hot to the touch

The basic steps in treating a wound infection include cleaning the wound, draining infected material and applying heat to promote circulation and stimulate the body's immune response. Antibiotics are sometimes used depending on the location and severity of the infection. Cleaning and drainage generally involve soaking the wound with a saline solution and removing debris; dead tissue, pus, dirt or other foreign material. In the case of an infected piercing, doctors will often request for the jewellery to be removed and the piercing to be left to heal. It is very important for the piercee to discuss with the physician that the jewellery should remain in place to act as a drain. If the jewellery is removed, the openings of the piercing will close up and the infection will not be able to drain, which can result in an abscess. An abscess is an infection that is trapped under the skin and is indicated by a darkening and hardening of the surrounding tissue, swelling and pain. In very rare cases of severe infection, where there is a lot of destruction of tissue in the area, the jewellery may need to be permanently removed and dead tissue and debris cut away for healing to occur. This should be clearly explained to the piercee if it appears to be necessary.

Moist heat is best for promoting healing of an infected piercing, so a warm, wet salt-water hot-compress applied to the area would be appropriate. Even more care must be taken with hand-washing and avoiding manipulation of the jewellery. Sheets and clothing in contact with the area should be changed at least daily. Promote circulation and a healthy immune system with good nutrition, avoiding alcohol, and quitting smoking. This is extremely important, if not essential to the healing process.

Antibiotics are typically necessary if the infection has spread beyond the immediate area of the wound. This as known as cellulitis and occurs when the body can no longer wall-off the infection. Redness, warmth to the touch and extreme tenderness extending more than a half inch from the piercing itself would be suspicious for cellulitis. In most cases, early treatment with antibiotics manages infection before it becomes severe.

Infected cartilage piercings such as the nose and upper ear will take longer to heal, as cartilage does not have its own blood supply; it depends on the surrounding tissues to provide oxygen and nutrients by diffusion. This also makes it more susceptible to infection and harder to treat. Destruction of cartilage by an infection can also lead to deformity of the ear or nasal contours. While most of these infections still clear well with early use of antibiotics, it is a risk that you should know about.

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