Lip piercings may be more prone to infection — especially during the initial healing stage — due to regular contact with saliva, food, makeup, and other bacteria.
Snagging the jewelry on your hair or clothing can also irritate the piercing and introduce new bacteria.
You may be more likely to develop an infection if you have a double piercing, like a vertical labret or dahlia. Infection may or may not affect both holes.
Keep reading to learn how to identify infection, what you can do to ease your symptoms, and how to prevent further complications.
If the piercing is new, irritation is normal. Your skin’s still adjusting to the new hole in your lip or surrounding area.
During the first two weeks, you may experience:
- minor swelling
- occasional throbbing
- mild heat or warmth
- clear or white discharge
Redness or swelling that extends beyond the piercing site may be a sign of infection.
Other early signs of infection include:
- persistent warmth
- worsening pain
- excessive bleeding
- bump at the front or back of the piercing
Mild infections can typically be treated at home. However, you should see your piercer right away if it’s your first time dealing with an infected piercing or if your symptoms are more severe.
Twisting or touching the jewelry can increase swelling and irritation. It can also introduce new bacteria into the piercing.
For the most part, consider the jewelry to be completely off-limits. The only time you should touch it is during cleansing.
It’s may also be tempting to take the jewelry out, but this can actually do more harm than good.
Not only can it cause further irritation, removing the jewelry may allow a newer piercing to close. This can trap bacteria and allow the infection to spread beyond the piercing site.
If you’re experiencing signs of infection, regular cleansing is the best way to flush out bacteria and prevent further irritation. You should clean two to three times a day with a saline or salt solution.
With a pre-made saline solution
Using a pre-made saline solution is typically the most convenient way to clean your piercing. You can buy these over the counter (OTC) at your piercer’s shop or local pharmacy.
To clean your piercing:
- Soak a cloth or a sturdy paper towel with saline. Don’t use tissues, thin towels, cotton balls, or cotton swabs; the fibers can get caught in the jewelry and cause irritation.
- Gently wipe the cloth or towel around each side of the jewelry.
- Make sure you clean the outside and inside of your lip or cheek.
- Repeat this process as many times as needed. There shouldn’t be any “crust” left on the jewelry or around the hole.
- Don’t scrub or prod, as this will cause irritation.
With a DIY sea salt solution
Some people prefer to make their own saline solution instead of purchasing something OTC.
To make a sea salt solution:
- Combine 1 teaspoon sea salt with 8 ounces of warm water.
- Stir until the salt completely dissolves.
- Follow the same steps for cleansing as you would with pre-made saline.
Can you use mouthwash?
Alcohol-free mouthwashes, such as Biotene, are safe to use, but they shouldn’t replace your saline cleansing routine.
You can use mouthwash to rinse after you a meal and as part of your normal oral care routine. Follow all package directions and avoid swallowing.
Applying a warm compress to the outside of the piercing may help minimize irritation, decrease swelling, and alleviate pain.
You can make a compress by sticking a damp towel or other cloth-based item in the microwave for about 30 seconds.
Some store-bought compresses contain herbs or rice grains to help seal in warmth and offer slight pressure.
If you’d like, you can make these modifications to your homemade compress. Just make sure that the cloth can be sealed or folded so that nothing falls out.
To use a warm compress:
- Place a damp cloth, sock, or other homemade compress in the microwave for 30 seconds. Repeat until it’s comfortably warm to the touch.
- If you have a store-bought compress, heat up as directed on the product’s packaging.
- Apply either the OTC or homemade compress to the affected area for up to 20 minutes at a time, once or twice daily.
Before use, do a patch test to ensure sure you’re not allergic to chamomile. To do this:
- Steep a chamomile tea bag in warm water for two to three minutes.
- Apply the tea bag to the inside of your elbow.
- Leave on for up to three minutes, and then remove. Allow your skin to dry without rinsing.
- Wait 24 hours. If you don’t experience any redness or other signs of irritation, it may be safe to apply a chamomile compress to your piercing.
To use a chamomile compress:
- Steep two chamomile tea bags in freshly boiled water for five minutes.
- Remove the tea bags and allow them to cool for about 30 seconds. The bags should be warm to the touch.
- Wrap each tea bag in a thin cloth or paper towel. This will help prevent the strings from getting caught on your jewelry.
- Apply a tea bag to each side of the hole for up to 10 minutes.
- Refresh the tea bags with warm water as needed.
- After 10 minutes, rinse the affected area with warm water and gently pat dry with a clean paper towel.
- Repeat this process daily.
Cold compresses can help reduce pain and swelling on the inside of your lip or cheek.
Suck on ice or popsicles as often as desired, especially within the first two days of healing.
If popsicles aren’t your thing, you can use a bag of frozen vegetables or soft ice pack to find relief.
To use a cold compress:
- Wrap a thin cloth or paper towel around the frozen pack.
- Gently apply gently to the affected area for up to five minutes at a time.
- Repeat twice daily.
Pure tea tree oil is potent and may cause additional irritation, so mix it with an equal amount of saline solution or carrier oil before use.
After you dilute the oil, do a patch test to check for sensitivity. To do this:
- Rub the diluted mixture into the inside of your elbow.
- Wait for 24 hours.
- If you don’t experience any itchiness, redness, or other irritation, it should be safe to apply elsewhere.
If the test is successful, you can add tea tree oil to your routine by:
- mixing a couple of drops into your saline solution and cleansing as usual
- using it as a post-cleanse spot treatment: simply dip a clean paper towel into the diluted solution and gently apply it to the outside of your piercing up to twice a day.
Generally speaking, antibiotics are supposed to treat and prevent bacterial infections. However, OTC antibiotics can end up doing more harm when they’re used on piercings.
OTC creams and ointments, such as Neosporin, are thick and can trap bacteria under the skin. This may lead to more irritation, making your infection worse.
Rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and other antiseptics can damage healthy skin cells. This can leave your piercing more susceptible to invading bacteria and prolong your infection.
You’re better off sticking with your cleansing and compress routine. See your piercer if you don’t see improvement within a day or two.
When it comes to lip piercings, you have to more than just clean the piercing site. You have to keep the rest of your mouth clean, too. This can help prevent the bacteria in your mouth from spreading to and getting trapped inside your piercing.
You may already know that daily flossing can help remove plaque and debris from in between your teeth and help prevent gingivitis. But it can also help prevent harmful bacteria from reaching your lips and further irritating your piercing.
Floss at night before brushing. You may consider using a floss holder to help with precision, so you don’t accidentally catch the floss on the jewelry.
From an oral health standpoint, brushing twice a day is just as important as flossing. You may also consider brushing midday to help prevent bacteria buildup. Toothpaste is unlikely to harm your lip piercing, but make sure you rinse thoroughly.
If you aren’t already using a mouthwash, there’s no real need to start now.
If you do use mouthwash, follow the product directions as you normally would. Avoid alcohol-based rinses.
What you eat matters, especially when you have a wound — in this case, an infected piercing — in your mouth.
As your lip piercing heals, focus on foods that are soft and unlikely to get caught on your jewelry. This includes mashed potatoes, yogurt, and oatmeal.
Anything chewy may require an additional salt rinse after eating. Water should be your drink of choice at this time.
Peppers, chili powder, and other spices can cause additional pain and irritation.
Alcohol can act as a blood thinner as well as damage the skin cells around the piercing. This may prolong your healing time and increase your risk of complications.
Coffee may also have blood-thinning effects. If you don’t want to take a temporary hiatus, cut back on your usual intake until the infection clears.
Although cleaning your piercing is important, it’s just one part of a larger care plan.
Learning to evaluate everything that may come into contact with your lip — and adjusting accordingly — can help you reduce the amount of bacteria, debris, and dirt that gets into the piercing.
- Refrain from using lipstick, lip gloss, and other lip products. You may need to toss any products that you use while the infection is active.
- Avoid sharing food and drinks to minimize the spread of infectious bacteria.
- Avoid open-mouth kissing and oral sex to reduce the transfer of bacteria and saliva.
- Wash your hands before touching your mouth to prevent the spread of germs.
- Change your pillowcase once a week and change your sheets at least once every other week.
- Avoid rubbing towels on your face after washing.
- Pull tops over your head slowly so you don’t catch the jewelry by mistake.
You should continue your daily cleansing and soaking routine unless your piercer advises otherwise. Keep up with this routine until all symptoms subside and until your lip piercing completely heals.
See your piercer if your symptoms don’t improve within two to three days, or if they worsen. They can take a look at the piercing and make specific recommendations for cleaning and care.