Nipple piercings can be risky. Unlike traditional ear piercings, which prick through dense tissue, nipple piercings puncture sensitive skin that’s also connected to a system of ducts. Piercing the skin cuts through your body’s first layer of infection defense. A nipple piercing places a foreign object close to complex deeper structures within the breast. This increases your risk of complications.
If you have or are considering getting a nipple piercing, this information can help you navigate possible complications and prevent infection.
Irritated piercings and infected piercings are two very different issues. Inflamed tissue will appear red and may be sensitive to the touch. Simply leaving the area alone may ease the irritation. This typically subsides within a few days without treatment.
The area is likely infected if the irritation persists or you experience any of the following symptoms:
- piercing is hot to the touch
- the area is extremely sensitive or painful when touched
- green, yellow, or brown discharge
- swelling of the piercing site
- bad odor near the piercing site
- body aches
Infection is most often caused by frequently touching the piercing site. This can introduce bacteria to the delicate tissue, which increases your risk for infection.
Because of the piercing’s location, tight clothing may easily catch onto or irritate the piercing. Exposing your piercing to saliva or other bodily fluids may also cause infection.
The risk for infection is long term. It doesn’t end in the immediate days or weeks after the piercing is made. As long as you have the piercing, you may experience any of these complications:
- nerve damage
- keloid formation
- interference with future medical needs or procedures
- interference with breast-feeding
Localized infections around the piercing are most common. On rare occasions, the infection may spread beyond just the nipple and breast and become more severe. These systemic infections can include:
- infection of the heart valves (endocarditis) in people with a history of abnormal heart structure
- infection in the blood stream
Your ability to self-diagnose typically depends on your symptoms. Some signs of an infection may be so obvious that it’s easy to recognize that your nipple piercing is infected. Pus drainage, for example, is a clear sign of an infection.
If you’re unsure about your symptoms or whether they indicate irritation or infection, you should consult your doctor. Waiting too long for a diagnosis and treatment can prolong the infection. This can greatly increase your risk for serious complications.
If you notice signs or symptoms of an infected nipple piercing, take immediate action. This can help prevent further complications or discomfort.
Never pinch, poke, or cut the area yourself in an attempt to drain an infection. This can lead to severe complications. Here are some things you can do that may stop or clear an infection:
Clean the area
Wash your hands, then gently clean and dry the area around your piercing. Use soaps formulated for sensitive skin, as these are less likely to irritate the affected area. Avoid using:
- hydrogen peroxide
- harsh soaps, detergents, or cleansers
Use a warm compress or sea salt soak
If you have a small, localized infection, you may be able to improve drainage of the infection by applying a warm compress to the nipple. You can also soak the nipple in warm water mixed with sea salt. Do these two things for several minutes two to three times per day. Afterward, gently clean, wash, and dry the piercing area.
Avoid using over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotic creams or ointments
These products can actually trap bacteria into the piercing and under the skin and can make the infection worse. Only use topical antibiotics prescribed by your doctor.
Ongoing care of any piercing is important, especially with a new piercing. Follow other instructions given by your piercer for best results.
If your symptoms worsen or persist, you should consult your doctor. They may put you on an oral antibiotic to clear the infection.
Ask the expert
If home treatment doesn’t help clear up your symptoms within one or two days, you should see your doctor. You may need prescription antibiotic medication.
Your piercer may also be able to help you identify your symptoms. Along with knowing how to recognize infections, they’re familiar with other piercing site reactions that don’t require antibiotics. They can make further recommendations about piercing jewelry and what materials may be better suited for your skin sensitivity or localized reaction.
Treatment of a nipple piercing infection depends on the severity of the infection and how well you follow doctor’s orders. Most people will finish their antibiotics in two weeks. If you’ve properly cleaned and cared for the infected nipple, you may be fully healed during this time. If you haven’t, your infection may linger or become ongoing, or chronic. This can be more difficult to treat.
If the infection is severe or wasn’t treated early enough, you may experience lasting complications. This can include a loss of sensitivity and excessive scarring in the piercing area. Talk with your doctor about any unusual symptoms you experience after the infection.
Preventing an infection is key to keeping a piercing long term. The following tips may help you prevent an infection in or around your nipple piercing.
Follow all instructions
When you first get your piercing, your piercer will give you detailed instructions for aftercare. Make sure to follow this advice closely so that the area can heal properly.
Keep the area clean
After getting your piercing, you should treat the nipple with special care. Make sure you gently wash and dry the area during every bath or shower.
Avoid touching the piercing
Any time you touch your piercing, you may be introducing bacteria into the skin. Keep the piercing covered and protected as best you can to avoid irritating, tugging, or moving the piercing implement.