If you decide to get your ears or another part of your body pierced, make sure you go to a licensed body piercing shop or piercer.
Piercing is a fairly safe procedure, as long as it's carried out by a licensed practitioner and you take care to avoid infection.
This page covers:
Symptoms of infection
When to get medical advice
Caring for a new piercing
To reduce the risk of your piercing becoming infected, good hygiene is important.
Always wash your hands and dry them thoroughly with a clean towel or kitchen roll before touching the area around the piercing.
Avoid fiddling with the area and don't turn the piercing. If a crust develops over the piercing, don't remove it – it's the body's way of protecting the piercing.
The piercing may bleed when you first have it done, and it may bleed for short periods over the next few days. It may also be tender, itchy and bruised for a few weeks.
Cleaning the piercing
Keep the piercing clean by gently cleaning the area around it with a saline (salt water) solution twice a day, preferably after washing or bathing.
To do this, submerge the area in a bowl of saline solution (1/4 teaspoon of sea salt per egg cup of warm water) for a few minutes at a time. Alternatively, you can wet a clean cloth or gauze in the solution and apply it as a warm compress.
Washing the piercing can help soften any discharge and allow you to clean the entry and exit points with a cotton bud or clean gauze. Once the discharge is removed or softened, the jewellery can be gently moved to work a little warm water through the piercing.
When you've finished, carefully dry the area with a fresh piece of kitchen roll. Never use a shared towel.
These leaflets published by Public Health England (PHE) have more specific aftercare advice for different types of piercing:
Symptoms of an infected piercing
Signs of infection include:
- red and swollen skin around the piercing
- pain or tenderness when touching the area
- yellow or green discharge coming from the piercing
- a high temperature (fever)
When to get medical advice
Get medical advice immediately if you think your piercing may be infected. A delay in treatment can result in a serious infection.
Contact your GP, call NHS 111 or go to a minor injuries unit or walk-in centre.
Leave your jewellery in (unless your doctor tells you to take it out).
An infected piercing can usually be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotic cream can be used to treat minor infections. Tablets may be needed for more serious infections.
Risks from piercings
Bacterial infection is the main risk associated with piercings.
An abscess (build-up of pus) may form around the piercing site which, if left untreated, may need to be surgically drained and can leave a scar.
In rare cases, an infection could lead to blood poisoning (sepsis) or toxic shock syndrome, which can be very serious. Blood poisoning can also occur without an abscess.
In the UK, registered piercing premises use sterile, disposable needles and equipment. This means the risk of passing on viruses, such as hepatitis and HIV, is almost non-existent.
Other general risks
Other risks from piercings include:
- bleeding, particularly in areas of the body with a lot of blood vessels, such as the tongue
- swelling of the skin around the piercing
- scarring – tell your piercer if you know your skin has a tendency to form keloid scars (a type of ovesized scar)
Specific risks related to the site of a piercing
Any piercing that interferes with bodily functions carries a higher risk of causing problems. For example:
- tongue piercings – can cause speech impediments and chipped teeth if the jewellery wears away tooth enamel; there's also a higher risk of bleeding and a risk that your airways will become blocked due to the tongue swelling
- genital piercings – can sometimes make sex and urinating difficult and painful, particularly with piercings on and around the penis
- ear cartilage piercings (at the top of the ear) – are riskier than earlobe piercings; they can cause infection and lead to an abscess developing; antibiotics aren't always effective and surgery may be needed to remove the affected cartilage
- nose piercings – are riskier than earlobe piercings, as the inner surface of the nose (which can't be disinfected) holds bacteria that can cause infection
Doing your own piercing is dangerous and should be avoided. Without the right equipment, there's a greater risk of infection and scarring.
When choosing a piercer, make sure they've got a piercing licence. All professional piercers must obtain a licence from their local council in order to carry out piercings.
The licence should be clearly and prominently displayed on their premises and means they meet the required safety and hygiene standards.