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Piercings: How to prevent complications

Piercings might be more common than ever, but don't take piercing lightly. Know the risks and understand safety steps.

Updated: 2024-03-01

Ears. Lips. Bellybuttons. Eyebrows. Piercings are popular, especially among teen and young adults. But piercings can sometimes lead to health concerns. Learn the steps you can take to help a piercing heal well.

Know the risks

A piercing makes an opening in a part of the body where you can wear jewelry. All piercings carry a risk of health problems developing afterward. Those risks include:

  • Allergic reactions. Some jewelry used with a piercing can cause allergic reactions. That's especially true for jewelry made of nickel.
  • Skin infections. An infection can cause redness, pain and swelling after a piercing. A fluid that looks like pus also may come out of the pierced hole when there's an infection.
  • Other skin problems. Piercing can lead to keloids. Keloids are raised areas on the skin caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue.
  • Mouth concerns. Jewelry worn in tongue piercings can chip and crack teeth. Jewelry also may damage the gums. Tongue swelling and inflammation after a piercing may affect chewing, swallowing and sometimes breathing.
  • Diseases spread through blood. If piercing equipment has infected blood on it, you can get diseases that are spread through blood. Examples include hepatitis B, hepatitis C and tetanus.
  • Tearing or trauma. Jewelry in piercings can get caught and torn out accidentally. Those injuries may need stitches or another type of repair.

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

Make sure you're ready

Before you get a piercing, think carefully about it. If you're unsure about the piercing or worry that you might regret it, you may want to wait. Don't let other people pressure you into getting a piercing. And don't get a piercing if you've been drinking alcohol or using drugs.

If you're confident you want to get a piercing, talk to friends who have a similar piercing. Ask if they have suggestions or tips for you.

Insist on safety steps

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

  • Who does the piercings? Go to a piercing studio or store that has properly trained employees. Don't try to pierce yourself. And don't let a friend who doesn't have training do the piercing.

    Piercing rules and licensing 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? People who do piercings should wash their hands and wear a fresh pair of disposable gloves for each piercing.
  • Does the piercer use proper equipment? Some stores use piercing guns for earlobe piercing. But the Association of Professional Piercers warns that reusable piercing guns can't be properly sterilized. That raises the risk of infection. Reusable guns also may damage ear tissue. Look for a piercer who uses a fresh, sterile, disposable needle to create the hole and then inserts a piece of jewelry into it.
  • Does the piercer sterilize equipment that must be reused? Make sure that the piercer has a heat-sterilization machine, called an autoclave. After each piercing, the machine should be used to sterilize any equipment that has to be reused.
  • Does the piercer use hypoallergenic jewelry? Jewelry that's hypoallergenic has a low risk of causing an allergic reaction. This type of jewelry tends to be made of metals such as surgical stainless steel, titanium, niobium, or 14- or 18-karat gold.

Take 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 healthcare professional. Getting treatment right away can help prevent medical problems related to piercings that could become serious.

To prevent infection and encourage healing:

  • Clean oral piercings with mouthwash. If you've had your tongue, lip or cheek pierced, rinse your mouth with an alcohol-free, antiseptic mouthwash after each meal and before you go to bed. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to clean around the jewelry and the pierced area every day. That will help remove bacteria and plaque.
  • Clean skin piercings. If you've had your skin pierced, clean the area around the piercing twice a day. You can use a saline solution made for wound cleaning or soap and water. Don't use hydrogen peroxide, iodine or other harsh products to clean the piercing. They could injure the pierced skin. Wash your hands before cleaning the piercing.
  • Don't go swimming. Stay out of pools, hot tubs, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water while the piercing heals.
  • Leave the piercing alone during healing. Don't touch a new piercing or twist the jewelry unless you're cleaning it. Keep clothing away from the piercing. Too much 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 keep the pierced hole open, always leave the jewelry in place during this time, even at night.