How infections develop
Infection occurs when bacteria become trapped inside the piercing. Tongue piercings — especially new ones — are more prone to infections than other piercings because of all the bacteria in your mouth.
Much of the bacteria is introduced by eating and drinking. French kissing, performing oral sex, and engaging in other sexual activity can also transfer bacteria.
Keep reading to learn how to identify an infection, ease your symptoms, and prevent further complications.
If the piercing is new, irritation is normal.
During the first two weeks, you may experience:
- minor swelling
- slight 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:
- uncomfortable swelling
- persistent warmth
- severe pain
- excessive bleeding
- pus or yellow discharge
- bump at the front or back of the piercing
Mild infections can typically be treated at home. But if your symptoms are severe — or if this is your first time dealing with an infection — you should see your piercer right away.
Moving the jewelry around can increase swelling and irritation, as well as introduce new bacteria into the holes.
The only time you should touch it is during cleansing.
It may also be tempting to take the jewelry out, but this can actually do more harm than good.
In addition to causing 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.
Regular cleansing is the best way to flush out bacteria and prevent further irritation. Morning and night cleanings are ideal. You may also consider rinsing with a saline solution after every meal.
With a premade saline solution
A pre-made saline solution is the easiest and most effective way to clean any piercing. You can buy these over the counter (OTC) at your piercer’s shop or local pharmacy.
To clean your piercing:
- Soak a clean cloth or sturdy paper towel with the solution. Don’t use cotton balls, tissues, or thin towels — these can get caught in the jewelry and irritate your piercing.
- Gently wipe the cloth or towel around each side of the jewelry. Don’t scrub or prod, as this will cause irritation.
- Repeat this process as many times as needed. There shouldn’t be any “crust” left on the jewelry or around the hole.
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 of sea salt with 8 ounces of warm water.
- Stir until the salt completely dissolves.
- When it’s ready, follow the same steps for cleansing with premade saline.
Can you use mouthwash?
Alcohol-free mouthwashes, such as Biotene, are safe to use. However, they shouldn’t replace your saline cleansing routine.
You can use mouthwash to rinse after a meal and as part of your normal oral care routine. Follow all package directions and avoid swallowing.
3. Suck on ice or apply a cold compress | Cold compress
Cold compresses can help reduce pain and swelling. The numbing effects may be preferable to warm compresses, especially if you’re in a lot of pain.
You can suck on ice cubes for a few minutes at a time to help alleviate symptoms. Repeat as often as you’d like.
If ice cubes 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 the compress in either a thin towel or sturdy paper towel.
- Gently apply to the affected area for up to five minutes at a time.
- Repeat twice daily.
4. Apply a warm compress | Warm compress
A warm compress can also minimize overall swelling and irritation.
You may not want to use a warm compress if you’re already experiencing uncomfortable warmth at the piercing site. In this case, start with a cold compress and switch to a warm compress as needed.
You can make your own warm compress by sticking a damp towel or other cloth-based item in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time.
Some store-bought compresses contain herbs or rice grains to help seal in warmth and offer slight pressure.
You can make these modifications to your homemade compress, too. Just make sure your cloth can be sealed or folded so that none of the added ingredients can fall 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 an OTC heat compress, microwave or heat as directed on the product packaging.
- Apply the compress to the affected area for up to 10 minutes at a time, up to twice per day.
First, do a patch test to ensure 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 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.
OTC antibiotics have long been used to treat infections. However, these aren’t useful — and can even be dangerous — for piercings.
Topical creams and ointments can trap bacteria inside the piercing and make things worse. Plus, they aren’t intended to be used inside your mouth.
Oral cleansers that contain hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, and other antibacterial ingredients can also harm healthy skin cells and slow down the healing process.
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 tongue piercings, you have to do 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.
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 tongue piercing, but make sure you rinse thoroughly.
If you aren’t already using a mouthwash, there’s no need to start now.
If you do use mouthwash, follow the product directions as you usually 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 tongue piercing heals, focus on foods that are soft and unlikely to get caught on your jewelry.
- ice cream
- mashed potatoes
Anything chewy may require an additional salt rinse after eating. Water should be your drink of choice at this time.
Extremely crunchy foods, such as chips, can cause additional pain and irritation. You should also avoid peppers, chili powder, and other spices.
Alcohol can act as a blood thinner, as well as damage the cells around the piercing. This can 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.
Cleaning your piercing is important, but it’s just one part of a larger care plan.
Learning to evaluate everything that may come into contact with your tongue — and adjusting accordingly — can help you reduce the amount of bacteria, debris, and dirt that get into the piercing.
- Refrain from using lipstick, lip gloss, and other lip products. You may need to throw away 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.
Unless your piercer says otherwise, maintain your daily cleansing and soaking routine. Keep this up until all symptoms subside and until your tongue 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.