Taking Care of Your Piercing: Does This Look Infected?
by K. A. Kristmanson
One of the things most of us worry about after a piercing is infection. It is common for clients to call the shop a day or two after the service to ask if the symptoms they’re experiencing are normal. Even with a thorough discussion about aftercare, you might go home and still wonder if everything is healing properly.
I’ll start by saying that I am not a medical professional, and to use your best judgement if you think you may need medical attention after a piercing. What I can offer is advice from the perspective of an industry professional. I have received instruction from another professional with over 25 years of experience. Six months before I began my pursuit of piercing, I began working as counter-staff in a tattoo shop, where I was generously mentored by my employers in cross-contamination, sterilization, and bloodborne pathogens. After deciding I wanted to start piercing, I contacted a shop in Vancouver that offered certification and hands-on training. Before receiving their answer, I contacted the Health Board in my city and asked for a module on bloodborne pathogens, and did my fair share of research on piercing placements, healing time, and proper tools/jewelry for each individual piercing. Several months of written work, and fourteen days of practicum later, I passed my course and began my work as a piercer. So, with that said, here’s what I can tell you:
What Is Normal?
Initially, your piercing will have some bleeding, localized swelling, tenderness and sometimes bruising. Over the next few weeks you might see some discoloration around the area, and secretion of whitish-yellow fluid that will form a crust on the jewelry. You may have some itching (often caused by the crust getting inside the piercing), and tissue may tighten around the jewelry due to swelling.
If you see these symptoms, don’t panic! This is normal for at least the first few days.
The Four Signs of Infection
Infection does come with a few symptoms that are similar to normal healing, but when these symptoms become combined together I would suggest seeking medical attention immediately. I repeat, do not go to your piercer, go to a doctor. Infection can become very serious if left untreated.
So, what are the signs?
- Pain, Swelling, Redness and Hotness around the piercing.
- Drainage of pus from the piercing.
Sounds like what I’ve listed as normal above, right? Yes, swelling and discoloration are normal, and often swelling can cause a warm feeling around the affected area. However, there is a difference between normal secretion of fluid (called lymph) and pus.
Lymph is a clear fluid produced by the body that turns into a crust when it dries. It can appear milky when that crust becomes wet as you soak it off during your regular piercing aftercare routine. Pus, on the other hand, will usually have a foul smell, and appear yellow or brown.
The other two symptoms are telltale signs of infection that are not to be confused with regular healing:
- Red streaks extending from the piercing.
If you are experiencing either of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
How to Avoid Infection
First, take care of your piercing. Follow the aftercare instructions given to you by your piercer, and if you lost the sheet, drop by the shop for another one. Any professional in this industry would be delighted that you are looking after your new body modification responsibly.
If you did not receive aftercare instructions in the first place, therein lies a problem. In which case, I’ve provided a rundown:
- Always wash your hands prior to touching the piercing, and leave it alone otherwise.
- Clean with soap and water ONLY. Or a saline or salt rinse recommended by your piercer.
- Make sure the piercing is cleansed of any discharge before moving the jewelry.
- Stay healthy! The healthier lifestyle you have, the faster you’ll heal.
- Make sure your bedding is clean and changed regularly.
- Wear clean, loose, breathable clothing to protect your piercing while sleeping.
- Bathtubs harbor bacteria. If you do bathe, clean the tub well before use.
- Avoid cosmetics near the piercing (lotions, hairspray, makeup).
- Use Hydrogen Peroxide on your piercing.
- Over clean your piercing. (Twice daily is good).
- Submerge the piercing in water (especially in a pool/hot tub).
- Hang objects from your jewelry.
- Change your jewelry before the recommended date provided by your piercer.
More Detailed Cleaning Instructions for Body Piercings
- WASH YOUR HANDS thoroughly prior to cleaning.
- SALINE SOAK (optional): fill a disposable cup with warm water and a small amount of noniodized sea salt. Hold the cup over the area to form a vacuum. Soak for 2 – 3 minutes. Or, apply fresh gauze or a cotton ball saturated with saline solution to the piercing, then rinse residue.
- SHOWERING: lather unscented soap on piercing for no more than 30 seconds. Rinse thoroughly.
- DRY: with disposable paper products (gauze or tissue), as cloth harbors bacteria. Pat gently.
Unfortunately, there are many people out there who claim to be professionals. My last piece of advice is to be smart, do research, and make sure you’re giving your money, time and trust to a person who worked hard to deserve it.