Irritations vs Infections - What's the difference?

Fitting new jewellery can often cause trauma to the piercing, resulting in an irritation of the surrounding tissue. A lot of people immediately assume this is due to the jewellery itself, but 9 times out of 10 it is from the procedure of removing the old jewellery and forcing new jewellery through the piercing hole. If you notice the area reddening and becoming warm to the touch, stop and take a break! You are going to irritate it and make it extremely sore and swollen. If you find the jewellery uncomfortable in any way, it probably isn’t suitable for your individual anatomy or piercing placement, so listen to your body and don’t force it.
The symptoms of an irritation can be similar to those of an infection. If the area is red, tender, excreting white/yellow fluid or seems to have a bump around the piercing, it is probably irritated. These are all signs that the piercing is being subjected to physical trauma and this will subside over time. Ear cartilage piercings can be touchy even after being healed for years, it is possible to knock it by accident and experience irritation for a few days.

The most common causes of irritation are:
  • Trauma from removing/fitting jewellery
  • Touching or playing with the piercing 
  • Applying pressure while sleeping
  • Bumping the piercing by accident
  • Irritation from chemicals in skincare or haircare products
  • Wrong jewellery type for the piercing
  • Jewellery is too thick (trying to fit 16g jewellery in an 18g piercing hole for example)
  • Changing your jewellery too soon before your piercing is properly healed

How to treat an irritation:
It is advised to apply a salt water bath or warm camomile tea bag compress to the area, this will help to soothe the skin and symptoms will gradually ease over a few days.

Infections occur when your piercing is exposed to bacteria from factors such as unwashed hands. You will usually know if your piercing becomes infected if the surrounding tissue becomes red, painful, swollen and hot to the touch with excess swelling. The most obvious sign of an infection is a yellowish-green pus-like discharge with a bad odour. You will have a general unwell feeling and may experience a fever, chills or upset stomach, similar to a cold or mild flu as your body is fighting an infection.

How to treat an infection:
The only way to get rid of an infection is with treatment from a doctor, usually with a short course of antibiotics. Do not remove the jewellery as the wound will close up and trap the infection inside.

Allergic Reactions
These often appear as rashes, redness and itchiness. These will show up immediately after the skin is exposed to the jewellery. You can be allergic to any material and not know it, so you must listen to your body and pay close attention to how your skin reacts to new jewellery. The most common allergy is nickel, which is present in Brass or Copper based jewellery. There are trace amounts in Stainless Steel, however it is such a low content that it will not cause any problems unless the individual suffers from an extremely severe nickel allergy.  Allergies to certain metals can develop and disappear at any time so if this happens, it is advised to stop wearing that kind of material and try a hypoallergenic option.

Piercing Bumps
One of the most common culprits for piercing bumps is touching the piercing hole with unwashed hands. Bumps can also appear after trauma to the piercing site, usually due to catching the jewellery on clothes, hairbrushes, knocking it by accident and changing jewellery to something new that the piercing isn’t used to, for example from a flat labret bar to a circular hoop. This can traumatise the piercing and lead to irritation bumps.

Do's & Dont's
  • Don't automatically assume you have an infection. It's always best to visit your local professional piercer for advice as they are able to physically examine your piercing to diagnose.
How to make a soak
  • Boil 200ml of water
  • Add ½ teaspoon of fine sea-salt and stir until fully dissolved in the water solution. Alternatively for more sensitive skin, brew a chamomile tea bag for 3 minutes and then remove.
  • Allow the mixture to cool, do not apply boiling hot water as this can cause damage. It should be a little warmer than luke-warm.
  • Soak a lint-free cloth or pad (ideally not a cotton pad as this contains micro fibres which can become trapped on the piercing) into the sea-salt or camomile solution.
  • Apply to the area until it cools, repeat multiple times until the area feels soothed and repeat once a day until the irritation subsides.

Remember: Irritation is very common in new piercings or piercings that are still healing. It is completely normal for brand new piercings to be swollen, sore to the touch and a little crusty around the hole - this is just part of the healing process.Even healed piercings can be easily irritated by switching to a new piece of jewellery. Cartilage is prone to flaring up after being healed for years and years just by changing to something your the healed tissue isn't used to, it's basically having to mould to a new shape or size.