A tongue piercing creates a wound in one of the most bacteria-filled parts of the body: the mouth. It is difficult to keep a tongue piercing clean, which further increases the risk of infection, especially during the healing process.
There have been few studies into how common tongue piercing infections are, but the warm, moist site of the piercing makes it a prime spot for bacteria to grow. Contact with food may further increase this risk.
One small survey revealed that 3 in 51 people with tongue piercings developed infections. Proper care can help the wound heal, reducing the risk of infection and helping keep the piercing in place.
Read on to learn more about the stage-by-stage healing process of a tongue piercing, as well as some associated risks and treatment options.
Stages of the healing process
When a tongue piercing heals correctly, the body treats the wound like a scar.
People's bodies are all different, so the healing process varies from person to person. People with weak immune systems due to diabetes, cancer, HIV, and some medications may need longer to heal and can also be more vulnerable to infection.
In general, a person can expect to experience the following stages as their tongue piercing heals:
After the piercing: Days 1–3
Immediately after the piercing, the wound may feel very sore and irritated. A person might have trouble talking and adapting to the new sensation in the mouth. However, they should avoid touching the piercing or knocking the piercing with the teeth, as this can increase irritation.
At first, it may be necessary to put food directly on the teeth in order to chew. Some people also choose to consume smoothies or other liquid foods for the first few days, until they adjust to eating with the jewelry in place.
In these early days, it is vital to rinse the mouth with a saline solution several times each day. Most piercers recommend using a quarter teaspoon of iodine-free salt mixed in 8 ounces of warm water. Do not use stronger solutions or antibiotic creams unless a doctor recommends it. Follow all instructions the piercer gives.
Also, use a new toothbrush after getting a new tongue piercing. This reduces the risk of accidentally introducing additional bacteria to the site.
Swelling and inflammation: Days 4–10
The swelling tends to increase for several days after the piercing, and it may last for a week or slightly longer. The wound may also bleed or ooze. A small amount of bleeding is normal, but consistent bleeding may signal a problem. After a few days, the wound may also ooze a whitish or clear fluid.
When the swelling decreases, replace the jewelry with a shorter piece of jewelry. Leaving longer jewelry in place increases irritation and may damage the teeth. It is safest to have a piercer do this.
Before touching the piercing, always wash the hands thoroughly and only use sterile, new jewelry intended for the tongue.
The risk of infection is very high during this stage. Some symptoms of infection include:
Early healing: Days 10–30
Piercings heal from the outside in, which means that the outermost tissue of the tongue heals first. This means that while the piercing may look less irritated, it is actually still healing for a month or longer.
By this stage in the healing process, it should have become less painful and will start to feel relatively normal. However, a person may still need time to adapt to the piercing.
Tongues heal quickly, which means that the piercing may close if a person removes the jewelry, even for a short period of time.
Scarring and complete healing: Weeks 4–6
A piercing is essentially a scar, and it takes time for this scar to form.
If there are no complications, complete healing usually takes around 4–6 weeks. If there is still swelling after a month, or if the piercing becomes painful or swollen after a period of seeming fine, this may signal an infection or other problem.
After a few months, the body treats the piercing as a scar, and the piercing is less likely to close without jewelry in it. The risk of infection also greatly decreases. However, people with poor oral hygiene, weak immune systems, and mouth injuries may still be vulnerable to infection.
Tongue piercings can also increase the risk of oral health problems, including infected gums and teeth. A tongue bar, particularly a large or heavy one, may knock into the teeth. This may lead to broken teeth, infections in the gums or teeth, and similar oral health problems.
Tongue piercings are fairly safe.
The most significant risk associated with a tongue piercing is that the wound will become infected shortly after the piercing. Most infections are mild, however, and a doctor can easily treat them with oral antibiotics.
In rare cases, a person might develop a more serious infection, such as an abscess. This would require them to stay in the hospital or receive intravenous antibiotics.
Some other risks of a tongue piercing include:
- damage to the teeth and gums
- receding gums on the inside of the mouth
- Ludwig's angina, which is a rare type of skin infection that occurs under the tongue
- accidentally swallowing the jewelry, which may cause choking or injury to the throat
- the transmission of conditions such as tetanus and HIV, if the piercer does not use clean, new jewelry and a sterilized needle
- an infection that spreads to the blood or other organs, though this is very rare
In some cases, the body can reject a piercing, which can lead to further complications. Learn more about piercing rejections here.
Treatment and home remedies
Most tongue piercings do not require special treatments or medications. Rinsing with a saline solution a few times per day is usually enough to keep the piercing clean. Some other strategies that can speed healing include:
- brushing the teeth regularly to keep the mouth clean
- rinsing the piercing after each meal
- not smoking
- minimizing talking during the first few days
- not playing with or touching the piercing
- avoiding contact with other people's bodily fluids — including via kissing and oral sex — during early healing
- not sharing plates, straws, toothbrushes, or anything else that comes into contact with another person's mouth
Do not try to treat an infected piercing at home. An infection is potentially serious. It can cause severe scarring and may even spread to other areas of the body. If a person suspects an infection, it is best to make an appointment with a doctor.
When to see a doctor
See a doctor if:
- there are signs of infection, such as a fever, intense pain, new swelling, or swollen glands in the neck
- an infected piercing does not improve within a few days of treatment
- the piercing begins consistently bleeding
- there is green or yellow pus or a bad smell coming from the piercing
- the gums swell or the teeth hurt
- there is swelling or unusual tissue growth elsewhere in the mouth
- In addition to seeing a doctor, a person may wish to follow up with the piercer for painful or unusual symptoms.
Many piercers can help with home remedies that ease discomfort and speed healing. However, the advice of a piercer is not a substitute for a consultation with a doctor.
For most people who take the necessary steps to ensure that it remains clean, a tongue piercing heals quickly and does not cause serious complications.
It may hurt for a few days and swell for a few more, but these symptoms are normal parts of the healing process.
Severe pain, long-term swelling, trouble talking, and eating difficulties are not normal, but they are treatable. A person should see a doctor or healthcare provider if they experience any of these symptoms.