Infections come from exposure to bacteria and other contaminants and can typically be avoided with basic hygiene (and common sense). You will usually know if your piercing becomes infected if the surrounding tissue becomes red, painful, swollen, and warm to the touch, or if you get discharge that is dark yellow, greenish, bloody, or has a bad odor. A small, fluid-filled “pimple” will often accompany facial piercing infections—though not all pimples are infections.
Healing piercings will normally secrete a white or pale yellow liquid during healing. This is not a sign of infection. A stinky white substance (sebum) from your oil glands can also collect on your piercings. This is normal too and comes off easily in cleaning. If your discharge is light in color and not accompanied by pain, itching, redness, warmth, or swelling, it is probably healthy.
If you do suspect an infection, do not remove your jewelry. Infections are more easily treated if there is still an opening for antiseptics to enter the wound and for discharge to exit. Without jewelry, the surface of the wound closes over and traps the infection inside, often causing a local surface infection to become a more generalized one. (Plus, you lose your piercing unnecessarily.) Hot salt water soaks are the best way to keep minor infections from getting worse. These help to draw out discharge, soothe painful tissue, and stimulate your body’s healing mechanisms.
Of course, in the event of a serious infection you should see your doctor. He or she can advise you on the best course of treatment. Just keep in mind that your doctor may not be familiar with treating body piercings.
More often than not, what many people think of as an infection is actually the result of irritation. If your piercing is red, swollen right around the hole, peeling, excreting white or yellow fluid, bleeding slightly, or seems to have a solid (not fluid-filled) bump around the jewelry, it is probably irritated. These are all signs that the piercing is being subjected to excessive abuse or trauma.
Some common causes of irritation are touching or playing with your piercing, cleaning it too much, wearing overly restrictive clothing (navels and nipples), applying pressure during sleeping or phone use (ear cartilage), chewing gum, grinding teeth, or playing with the jewelry (tongue piercings), having sex too soon (genitals), or other actions or activities that bump, twist, pull at, or put undue pressure on your piercing.
If your piercing is irritated, figure out what’s causing the problem. Once the cause of the irritation is found and eliminated, symptoms will often disappear. Warm salt water soaks work well to help soothe painful piercings and keep the irritation from getting worse.
It is always possible for your body to react adversely to foreign substances introduced to it, including metals or cleaning solutions. Allergic reactions will often appear as rashes, excessive clear fluid discharge, redness, itchiness, or (with some metal allergies) the skin pulling away from the jewelry. These will show up immediately after being pierced—in the case of a metal allergy—or right after starting to use a new cleaning solution.
When using quality, implant-grade jewelry and appropriate cleaning solutions, allergic reactions are rare. If you suspect you are having an allergic reaction to your cleaning solution (usually this will emerge as a large, red patch around the piercing), switch to a sea salt or saline solution. If you suspect a metal allergy, stop in and let us have a look. Often simple irritations are mistaken for allergic reactions.