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Infection vs Irritation Bump: Which is it?

infection irritation bump

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We’ve all had it happen: We get a new piercing, we love it, and then – the dreaded red bump. Is it an infection? Just an irritation bump? Those of us who tend to worry about such things can quickly be sent off the deep end. To make matters worse, an infection in a piercing can become very dangerous very quickly, so you need to see a doctor as soon as possible if you have one. Luckily, there are some key differences between an infection and a simple irritation bump.

What is an Infection?

An infection is any issue with your body that involves an actual infection, such as chlamydia, genital herpes, or strep throat. An infection is often painful, so you might not notice it. If your bump just appears, and doesn’t seem to hurt, you might not know it’s an infection until you start developing sores, blisters, or swelling. (As we all know, though, even very small bumps can be infected!) You might also have a fever. A rash around the piercing site, even without fever, is a sign of an infection. If the skin around your piercing is red and cracked, you might have an infection. It’s also common for a new piercing to hurt if you put any weight on it for the first few days or weeks. 

Signs of an Infection

The first and most obvious sign of an infection in a piercing is a pungent, pus-filled boil that forms around the piercing. You may also notice that the skin around the piercing is hot to the touch. Advanced infections will also experience red streaks across the skin. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to actually know if you have an infection until it is too late. You will know you have an infection when you begin to get a fever, chills, or other flu-like symptoms.

How to Prevent Infection

Take care of your piercing. This goes for all piercings, but is especially important when you’re first getting a piercing. Wet skin around the piercing and the piercing site will cause bacteria to get into the piercing, leading to infection. Make sure to keep your piercing as dry as possible. Make sure your piercer uses the right tools for your piercing. Although there are different tools for piercing jewelry, you’re still going to want a sterile needle. Keep your piercing clean and dry. The most important step is making sure you wash your hands before touching your piercing.

How to Treat an Infection

If you have all of the signs and you know that your bump is an infection – it’s time to head to the doctor. Seriously. Right now. If it is the middle of the night find somewhere that’s open. Infections in piercings do not heal on their own and they become very dangerous very quickly. Your doctor will need to prescribe you some oral antibiotics to clear it up before it travels into your bloodstream.

Untreated Infections

Left untreated, a piercing infection will spread to other parts of your body. This is called a systemic infection. Infections in the cartilage are particularly dangerous. Because cartilage doesn’t have as much blood going through it, it can be harder to have antibiotics treat the area. With more advanced infections in the cartilage, doctors sometimes have to use IV antibiotics, which require a stay in the hospital. Furthermore, an untreated infection in ear cartilage could cause a breakdown of the cartilage, deformity, and even hearing loss.

Should you Take Out Your Jewelry

No matter if it is an irritation bump or an infection, you should probably not take out your jewelry. If you have an irritation bump, the only thing taking out your jewelry will do is cause it to get more irritated. With infections, doctors who don’t have a lot of experience treating piercing infections will sometimes tell you that you should take out the piercing. Unfortunately this is poor advice because the piercing actually serves as a hole for the infection to drain through. People inexperienced with piercings don’t know how quickly they close up, so the doctor likely thinks removing the piercing will give a bigger hole for draining. However, when the piercing closes up, there will be no way for the infection to drain and it will get worse and need stronger antibiotics to heal.

What is an Irritation Bump?

An irritation bump happens when something goes into the piercing (for example, dirt, hair, or other foreign material) and irritates the piercing. Although it feels like something is stuck in the piercing, it’s usually not actually anything stuck to the piercing. It’s actually normal skin of the surface of the body that has been irritated by something going in. The most common places for irritation bumps to occur are the groves of the ear. However, irritation bumps frequently occur in all piercings. The most common reasons for an irritation bump include: hair wrapping around the piercing, sleeping on the piercing, and fiddling with the piercing before it is healed.

Causes of Irritation Bumps

Irritation bumps are caused by something bumping against the piercing. Typically this is something like hair wrapped around the jewelry or accidentally sleeping on it at night. They could also form if you are playing with your jewelry or if you attempted to change the jewelry before it healed. Irritation bumps can also be caused by improper jewelry, whether it is the wrong size (both too large and too small could pose an issue), or the wrong material (implant grade titanium is the only safe metal for healing piercings). Irritation bumps could also occur due to improper cleaning techniques. No oils, lotions, soaps, etc, should be anywhere near a healing piercing. Also do not pick at any crust on a healing piercing. Piercings should be left completely alone for the entire healing process.

How to Treat an Irritation Bump

Irritation bumps heal themselves in a few days to a week. If you have not been touching your piercing at all (including cleaning) and are certain that you aren’t rolling onto it in your sleep and your irritation bump is still there after a week, it is time to visit your piercer. Your piercer will be able to evaluate if you have the wrong size jewelry in and they can safely change it for you. If they say the size is correct, request to be changed to an implant grade titanium jewelry. Some piercers unfortunately still pierce with 316L stainless steel, which some people can be allergic to in specific parts of their body.


An infection is a serious situation, so you need to get treated right away. This is obviously a different situation from having an irritating bump, which is just annoying and it clears up without treatment. Learning the signs of an infection versus an irritation bump is an important step in keeping yourself (and your piercing) safe and healthy.