How to Deal With and Prevent a Painful Piercing Infection
As a full-blown skin-care junkie, one who keeps a stack of index cards filled with the names of ingredients and their benefits next to her bed, I have an embarrassing admission to make. I almost landed myself in the emergency room because I failed to recognize that two of my piercings had become badly infected. I'd never had cartilage piercings before so I thought it was normal to wake up to pain and discomfort five months after the fact. Did I question why they were still bleeding every time I cleaned them? Yes. But not as much as I should have, and trust me, I should have.
Luckily, I happened to have an appointment at Russak + Aesthetic Center for a Skinscope LED session. While talking with my esthetician, Meredith, she immediately noticed my piercings (in my upper ear) were a mess. She called in Dr. Russak and it was official — I was in need of some serious treatment. I quickly learned that had it not been for Dr. Russak and her team, I may have ended up in the hospital.
To help others avoid this painful debacle I spoke to Dr. Russak to bring you everything you need to know about how to care for piercings, how to tell if they've become infected, and what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation.
How to Spot an Infection
According to Dr. Russak, signs and symptoms of an infection include redness, swelling, and pain in the area of the piercing. Of course, this is to be expected for a short period of time after the initial piercing, but when symptoms don’t go away or start to get worse over time, that’s a warning sign that you should seek medical attention. If you think you have an infection, book an appointment to see your doctor or dermatologist as soon as possible.
A week prior to being diagnosed by Dr. Russak I knew something was up with my piercings. Every time I cleaned my ears with soap and sea salt-sprayed Q-Tips, the cotton swabs were covered in crust and blood. This prompted me to revisit my piercing parlor, a very well-respected and highly Yelp-reviewed establishment to have them check it out. At the piercing parlor, they made no mention that my ear might be infected, and they didn’t suggest removing the barbells.
Instead, the very nice, well-meaning piercer cleaned my ears by squeezing out some pus and blood (sorry to the squeamish), and then told me to continue using salt spray and antibacterial soap on the area before sending me on my way. Little did I know that my piercings had become ticking time bombs.
Seven days later, the crew at Russak immediately acknowledged that my ear had become deeply infected. My particular infection manifested as lesions known in the medical community as pyogenic granulomasvascular growths, or PGs for the layperson like me. PGs are typically caused by some sort of trauma, whether intentional (like from a piercing) or as the result of an accident.
Sadly, this meant I had to say goodbye to my earrings and the area of infection had to be cauterized. This is a method that uses a heated tool to collapse blood vessels. It stops a wound from bleeding or prevents infection. The procedure was painless, thanks to some lidocaine injections, and took just a few minutes. To ensure my infection wouldn’t linger or spread, I was also put on a round of oral antibiotics, and I was instructed to apply topical antibiotics as well.
When Piercings Go Wrong
“If left untreated, simple infections of the skin and soft tissue can get into the bloodstream resulting in the patient getting very ill,” Dr. Russak explained. The symptoms include fevers, chills, malaise, and night sweats. Even scarier, Dr. Russak told me, “When infections progress this far without proper medical care, a visit to the emergency room or hospital may become necessary so the infection can be treated with IV antibiotics.” Yikes.
Dr. Russak said the most common infections she sees when it comes to piercings are wound infections that occur at the site. “There are needles and blood, so if the facility does not utilize sound sterilization techniques, then we also worry about other blood-borne infections such as hepatitis and HIV,” she continued. To prevent any kind of infection, it’s important to do research beforehand to ensure your piercings are done in a safe, sterile environment by an experienced professional.
Piercing infections are no joke. Here’s how to avoid to avoid this type of painful piercing tale.
How to Care For Your Piercing
When it comes to caring for your piercing Dr. Russak said the area needs to be cleaned with antibacterial soap and water daily after showering. It’s also important to apply an ointment like Vaseline or Aquaphor every day. The ointment tip was news to me as I’ve had my fair share of piercings, and no one has ever told me to use Vaseline to help the healing process. Keeping wounds moisturized with ointment not only speeds up recovery time, but it protects them from drying out, scabbing, crusting, and becoming infected.
Take it from me, don’t be a hero if your piercing remains painful after a few weeks (or in my case, months) or shows any sign of an infection including redness, oozing, crusting, or the development of bumps. It’s normal for piercings to be sore for the first few days, or, in the case of cartilage piercings, a couple of weeks. From then on, piercings should start to heal. They should not be getting worse.
If you think there’s a slight chance you might have an infection, play it safe and head to the doctor. If you nip it in the bud early with proper treatment it’s likely you won’t have to say sayonara to your piercings, and it will put the end to a lot of unnecessary pain.