When you have an infected piercing, your first thought might be to take your jewelry out. While that might seem like the best thing to do, it's best to leave this to your doctor. If your piercing is actually infected, and you remove the jewelry on your own, you may spread the bacteria. Instead, see a dermatologist, who will likely swab the area for a culture and start a course of topical and/or oral antibiotics to treat the infected skin piercing. Your derm will likely also want to monitor the area for potential abscess formation throughout your treatment plan. To learn more, we spoke to two dermatologists, Y. Claire Chang and Alicia Zalka.
Meet the Expert
- Y. Claire Chang, MD, is a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in Manhattan.
- Alicia Zalka, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Yale. She also is the founder of Surface Deep.
Mild infections can be treated easily enough at home. If it's just a little irritated, slightly red or warm, you can try a few things to clear it up on your own:
Determine If Your Piercing Is Infected
The first thing is to determine if your piercing is actually infected. "A piercing may be infected if you notice redness, swelling, pain or tenderness, warmth, crusting, and yellow drainage around the piercing site," says Chang. "More severe infections can lead to spreading redness/swelling, fevers, chills, and swollen lymph nodes."
"My experience is that bellybutton piercings are the ones most at risk for infections. The second most common would be nose piercings," says Zalka.
If you find that your piercing is infected, here's our step-by-step guide to cleaning it:
- Wash your hands thoroughly before touching any part of the infected area.
- Make a saltwater solution by combining 1/4 tsp. of salt with 8 oz of water. If you can find a saline solution, you can use that as well.
- Do not remove the piercing. Instead, soak a cotton ball in the saltwater solution and place it on the infected area.
- Dry the area with dry paper towels or gauze.
- Repeat these steps up to twice a day until the infection is completely healed.
Consider the Jewelry Material
If you have a nickel sensitivity, you may not be able to handle jewelry made of nickel-laden metals. "It’s best to see your dermatologist or other health care provider as an infection can be mistaken for an allergic reaction and vice versa," says Zalka. "Some people react to the metal in the piercing object. This can happen to those with a nickel allergy." Silver, gold, and steel may still have small amounts of nickel in them; enough to bother someone who's very sensitive. In this case, niobium or titanium jewelry may be necessary. You may also have allergic reactions to other kinds of metals, even if they don't contain nickel. Always consider the jewelry first if you're having a problem, and have it changed to a high-quality metal if you think that could be the cause.
Don't Remove Your Jewlery
An infection does not necessarily mean that you need to remove the jewelry and jump ship from your new piercing. Many infections will clear up with some extra care, and you can keep your new jewelry. "Minor infections can be managed conservatively with saltwater or sterile saline soaks, and it is not necessary to remove the jewelry," says Chang.
Avoid Excessive Touching
It can be tempting to want to turn, twist, and touch the infected piercing in an effort to keep the hole from closing up. Chang warns, "Avoid excessively touching or manipulating the infected site as this can worsen the irritation and inflammation." Only manipulate the piercing site when you are cleaning it, otherwise, leave it alone to heal.
Always Wash Your Hands Before Touching or Treating Your Piercing
Minor infections can often be treated at home, but it's important to make sure you are doing so with clean hands. "Make sure you do not have a fever or swollen lymph nodes, which suggests you should seek a doctor for further evaluation," notes Chang. "Avoid excessively touching or manipulating the infected site as this can worsen the irritation and inflammation. If touching the area, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly beforehand." Soap and water, please!
Keep The Area Clean With Sea Salt Soaks
If you don't think the jewelry is the cause, then the source of the infection is probably bacterial. The way to fix that is to kill and/or clear the bacteria. Try cleaning the area twice a day and doing sea salt soaks twice a day; basically treating it like a brand new piercing. The heat and the salt are both claimed to help draw out pus and other fluids that may contain bacteria. Hopefully, following that regimen for a few days will clear up an infection in its early stages. You can do this with a q-tip and sterile saline or saltwater (distilled water combined with salt). Remember to clean both the front and back of the earlobe.
"Avoid alcohol or hydrogen peroxide to the affected area, as these can further irritate the skin and slow down the healing process," says Chang.
Apply a Topical Antibiotic Ointment
Applying a topical antibiotic ointment recommended by a dermatologist can be a great way to help heal the infected area. After cleaning, gently pat the area dry and pat a small amount of the ointment over the infected area.
Apply a Warm Water Compress
If the piercing is hot to the touch and painful, you can cleanse by applying a warm-water compress. You can do this right at home by taking a washcloth, running it under warm water, and then applying directly to the infected site. Just make sure that the cloth is not burning hot. Keep the compress on for 20-30 minutes and repeat as necessary. "It’s healed when the skin returns to normal color and is no longer painful or swollen and there is no longer any yellow discharge," says Zalka.
Talk to Your Doctor
More serious infections, however, can lead to other serious problems, so if you are oozing thick or green pus, or if the area is seriously swollen and hot to the touch, you should not attempt to clear the infection on your own. "Improvement in redness, warmth, pain, and drainage suggests that the infected site is healed. If you develop an abscess, spreading infection, fever, chill, or malaise, please notify your board-certified physician for evaluation and treatment," says Chang.
Advanced infections may require jewelry removal and antibiotic treatment, so please see your doctor. Regardless of the stage of the infection's severity, dermatologists agree that all skin infections should be evaluated and treated professionally (usually with something bacterial, bacteriostatic, or bactericidal). Remember, only your doctor can assess how severe your infection is and determine the best course of treatment.
Cleveland Clinic. Infected ear piercing.