Dealing with piercing problems can be the pits. When a strange red bump pops up around a piercing, you start developing a hypertrophic scar, your earlobe begins bleeding or blows out after attempting a stretch a little too fast, you swell up suddenly, and/or your piercing begins oozing pus, it can be downright scary. The good news is that many piercings gone wrong can be corrected with a little time and TLC. Here's what you need to do to get your piercing gone wrong back to rights:
First things first, take a deep breath. It's freaky to wake up, walk in the bathroom, and see your nostril has swelled up to the size of a small ball, or to feel the irritated upper ridge of your ear throbbing around an angry-red cartilage piercing that's oozing pus after sleeping on it. Whatever's gone wrong with your piercing, it's natural for you to be scared, but you have to collect yourself before you can fix it. Don't expect an immediate miracle, but know that you can get through this.
Assess the Damage
- slightly torn skin or even a blown-out earlobe caused by stretching too far too fast, you can often nurse it back to health using the steps below.
- a strange red bump, a flesh-colored, hard bump that makes a fairly small, almost-perfect circle around your piercing, swelling around your piercing, a thick, yellowish discharge that's most likely pus, and/or the area around your piercing is just generally red and irritated, move onto the next section.
- a fully torn earlobe, you need to bandage it and see a dermatologist or, preferably, a cosmetic surgeon as soon as possible to see if it can be repaired.
- scarring in an odd (often asymmetrical) shape around your piercing that's taught (looks full-to-bursting with fluid), somewhat shiny, and a different color from your normal skin tone (usually darker shade that's closer to the color of your lips), then you may be developing a keloid. Keloids are actually pretty rare relative to the number of other post-piercing problems people experience. Most people who end up with problem piercings and think they have a keloid are actually just dealing with a general irritation, hypergranulation, or a hypertrophic scar. If you meet the original criteria, though, you should see a dermatologist. If you discover you're prone to actual keloids, you should avoid getting any new piercings.
- another problem not detailed above, check out our forum. Look through the subjects listed or enter your symptoms in the search box one at a time, and you'll likely find a thread that covers a similar problem and includes great feedback from the community on what to do to resolve the issue. You can also post a new thread and ask current community members and our knowledgeable moderators for help.
Gather Appropriate Supplies
If you're dealing with any of the problems detailed in #1 or #2, there are a few general supplies you should gather up to make sure you can properly care for your piercing and nurse it back to health. If you're dealing with problems #3 or #4, you need to see a doctor as soon as possible.
- A Saline Piercing Aftercare Spray like Recovery or H2Ocean (preferably a small bottle to carry around with you and a larger bottle for home)*
- Tea Tree Oil (a natural antiseptic)
- Sea Salt (aquarium salt from a pet store works well)
- Sterile Water (tap water that's been boiled hard for 5 minutes is fine)
- A Measuring Cup (if you don't use a Pyrex measuring cup, you'll also need a heat-safe container in which to mix sea salt solution, a.k.a. SSS)
- 1/4 Teaspoon Measuring Spoon
- Cotton Balls and/or Swabs
*Use a saline oral rinse for oral piercings, and leave the tea tree oil out of your homemade sea salt solution when following the recipe in the next section.
Start Fixing Your Piercing Gone Wrong
First, mix your sea salt solution (SSS):
- Measure out 1 cup of sterile water.
- Stir 1/4 tsp. sea salt into the water, preferably while it's still hot/warm.
- Add 2-3 drops of tea tree oil, and stir well.
What to Do Next
Once the solution has cooled to a comfortable temperature, soak your piercing with it for 5 minutes using a series of clean cotton balls, cotton swabs, or even a shot glass filled with the solution.** The latter works for irritated belly button piercings if you lean forward, press the cup around your belly button, stand back up, and hold it tight against your stomach for 5 minutes. It also works for soaking earlobe piercings and many genital piercings. This is a particularly good idea for any degree of earlobe tear and blowouts. If you have lots of little tears/cracks from trying to stretch or you've pushed the fistula right out the back of your ear (which is what a blowout is, basically), it's best to keep your stressed lobe completely immersed in the soothing, healing SSS for the full 5 minute treatment.
If you've developed a hypergranulation (typically a red bump caused by particles of an irritant getting trapped in your piercing) or a hypertrophic scar (an almost perfect circle of skin-colored, raised flesh around your piercing), you should try applying pressure during the soaks. This is where cotton swabs come in handy, because you can press down more firmly and accurately with a SSS-soaked swab. Press down very gently at first, and see if you can tolerate the pressure comfortably. If it hurts, back off and just do the soaks for now. You can try again each time you do a full soak, and at some point you should be able to tolerate a bit more pressure, which can help minimize and/or eliminate these issues.
Repeat the SSS soaks two times per day, morning and night. In between, spray your irritated piercing frequently with Recovery Piercing Aftercare Spray or H2Ocean. It will soothe the irritated skin, keep it hydrated, and slowly help it to heal when done in combination with twice daily soaks. Healing takes time. Be patient! The primary key to success is following the routine and monitoring for improvement.
**For oral piercings, swish for 30 seconds, spit, and repeat for 3-5 minutes. Rinse with oral rinse in between your twice-daily homeade SSS rinses.
What You Shouldn't Do
The second key to success is avoiding certain missteps that can delay or totally halt the healing process, if not completely backfire and make things worse. Here are a list of things you should NOT do while trying to heal your piercing gone wrong:
- Do NOT continue wearing jewelry that's too tight if you're excessively swollen! Doing so can cause necrosis (tissue death), which can lead to infection and even permanent skin damage. Have your piercer change your jewelry for you to something less constrictive, like a longer barbell or a captive ring.
- Don't wear jewelry at all while you're healing if you're dealing with a blowout or tear(s) from stretching. Leave it out until you're fully healed if you have a blowout--even if that means losing all the progress you previously made stretching. For minor tears, leave your jewelry out until the tears are no longer noticeable, and then gently try inserting a smaller size, see how it goes, and only go up a size if the smaller jewelry is too small to stay in your piercing. DO NOT try stretching again for 3x as long as it took for your piercing to heal initially (12 weeks minimum)! You should always wait a minimum of 2x (and sometimes up to 3x) as long as it took for your piercing to heal initially in between soft tissue stretches (stretching cartilage is another story). When you do try to stretch again, be kind to yourself and go up very gradually by wrapping your jewelry with a single layer of stretching tape every couple weeks to get to a full-size change gradually over the time you would normally wait in between full-size stretches. You can also try tapers, but tape is less obtrusive, and it's easier to manage size changes.
- Don't use any triple antibiotic ointment or other balms, creams or oils on your piercing. Diluting a little tea tree oil in your SSS is a good thing for your piercing, but it isn't 10x better if you apply it directly! Vitamin E oil is a super healer, but it's really not good for piercings, which are deep puncture wounds rather than surface wounds. You can clog the healing fistula and just make things worse. The only exception is when your piercing is fully healed, the fistula is well-established, you have no current irritations, and you're preparing for a stretch. Then and only then is it okay to massage emu oil into your skin daily to promote your skin's natural elasticity and aid in the stretching process... which you will take slowly rather than forcing a plug that's 2+ sizes bigger into your poor piercing. (That's an order, not a question!)
- Don't wash your problem piercing directly with soap. SSS is enough if you're doing the soaks. If at any point you feel you absolutely have to clean your piercing more thoroughly for some reason, use a gentle soap like baby shampoo, warm water, and a gentle touch.
- Do not play with your piercing or touch it absentmindedly. You could push dirt and/or bacteria into your piercing! Only ever touch your healing piercing with clean hands that have just been washed with antibacterial soap or with gloved hands, and even then, only when you absolutely have to touch it. Your problem piercing will get better faster if you leave it alone as much as possible.
- Don't turn your jewelry to break up "crusties". While a new or irritated piercing is healing, it's very likely to secrete lymph, which is a clearish fluid that dries to a whitish crust. It's a natural part of healing and absolutely nothing to worry about. If it builds up to a crust and bothers you, clean your hands, and then apply a SSS-soaked cotton swab to soften the crusties enough that you can gently wipe them away with a tissue.
- Protect your piercing from irritants like hair spray, perfumes, body sprays, etc. If you have a cartilage piercing, you can expect it to stay sore off and on for 6+ months, even if you have no significant problems. If you're constantly spraying hairspray on your head and don't cover your piercing, you'll clog up the fistula, get it irritated, and then have a really sore ear that stays sore for longer. The same goes for any piercing. Anything containing alcohol (most perfumes) or other chemicals is bound to be an irritant. If you get something undesirable in or on your piercing, rinse it with warm water and/or piercing aftercare spray.
- For Ear Piercings, Nostril & Lip Piercings: Try to avoid sleeping on your irritated side or face. Again, you have to protect your problem piercing as much as possible while it heals.
Keep up the Routine
After a few days to a week of twice-daily sea salt solution soaks, regular spritzes of saline piercing spray, and careful piercing care as detailed above, you should start to see some improvement in your piercing gone wrong. Regardless of whether you had a blowout, a tear, excessive swelling, pus oozing, a hypergranulation forming, a hypertrophic scar developing, or just general redness and irritation, following the steps above should help your body heal your problem piercing over time.
If you don't see improvement within a few days and you have signs of infection that are worsening (red streaks around your piercing, thick, yellowish pus being discharged, and/or fever), you need to see your family doctor ASAP and get an antibiotic. You may need to see a dermatologist if you have any of the other issues listed and the problem persists.
Throughout the healing process, take good care of yourself in general. The healthier you are, the faster and better your body will heal. Eat well, drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep, and generally care of yourself well. If you experience significant swelling, it's okay to take some Ibuprofen, too, if you can tolerate it. Ice isn't ideal for a healing piercing, but applying a cool wash cloth is okay as long as you toss it in the laundry basket immediately after 1 compress application. No ringing it out and re-wetting it, either!
Tell Us How You're Doing
Our forum is the center of our online community. We want to hear from you there when you're having piercing problems so we can help you, and we want to hear your story and how you're involved in the body mod scene. Are you an artist? If so, what kind? Are you a piercing enthusiast or a tattoo collector? Tell us! We want to connect with you--to hear about your body mod adventures, share information with you that will hopefully help you before trouble sets in, give you guidance when you need help, and learn from you and your experiences. We'd also love to hear which of our new content you like best. If you have a favorite blog post (or even one you hate), or there's an article you've found to be a helpful reference, we want to know!
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