Tough love: The stages of healing

January 10, 2009

Just how long is the healing period for a piercing, anyway?

Well, you often hear ranges for specific piercings, say, 6-9 months for a navel piercing, or 4-6 weeks for a tongue piercing.  But these numbers really mean very little–different piercers or websites will have different figures; and they don’t tell the whole story, anyway.   Understanding how your piercing heals will help you customize your aftercare and know when it’s healed enough to change the jewelry.

Remember that piercings heal from the outside in: that is, new skin cells form at the outside of the flesh tunnel, where the piercing holes are, and slowly creep down the tunnel until it’s covered. A piercing is healed when it’s not red, sore, bleeding, or exuding lymph, and has generally calmed down after the recommended healing time. Piercing holes should have a smooth, donut-hole-like rim.

There are three stages of healing a body piercing:  The relatively short “open wound” stage; the longer secondary healing stage; and finally, the healed piercing.

Stage 1

Stage 1

Stage 1: For the first week, or few weeks depending upon the piercing, your piercing is a fresh wound, so treat it as such.  Bleeding, redness, soreness, and discharge are all common.  It may itch at this stage, or it may just be sore.  Be extra careful to guard against infection at this stage.   Regular soaking and showering are suggested.

Stage 2

Stage 2

Stage 2: This is where the main healing takes place, and represents a time period of anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on your piercing, your health, and other variables.  (Sorry for the crappy drawing–I hope that’s clear.)

It’s also the stage at which “crusties” tend to occur.  Your healing wound (i.e., your piercing) will exude and expel dead skin cells and lymph cells or plasma.  If left in place, it will dry to a whitish, crusty, or crystalline substance on your jewelry, where it may attract bacteria or get dragged through your piercing.   Sea salt soaks are the best thing to draw out this exudate and keep your piercing free of foreign matter.  Itching and soreness are common, especially at first, and flare-ups or irritation are also likely as it continues to heal.  Still, you should see overall improvement until it looks healed by the end of the period, and it’s possible to change the jewelry at this point if you’re gentle.

But stop! Just because it looks healed from the outside, does that mean it’s really healed all the way?

Stage 3

Stage 3

Probably not–remember, skin cells may still be forming on the inside, where you can’t see them.  Even when your flesh tunnel is covered with new skin cells, or epithelials, they are still new and weak, easily damaged with jewelry changes (especially with externally threaded jewelry) or rough treatment.

Stage 3: There’s a final stage, the toughening stage, which often gets short shrift in the initial concern (okay, fine:  paranoia) over our piercings.  This is the stage where the skin cells become smooth and tough,the inside of the channel is sealed, the jewelry moves easily through the piercing (usually), and changes of jewelry don’t bother it (usually).  This takes time!

If you want to use your piercings for rough body play, hang weights from them, wear nipple shields or dangly jewelry–wait until they are fully healed and toughened up.  And I’m talking possibly a year or two, maybe, depending on the body part.

Be gentle with them and give them the time they need with your jewelry in place.  Go sloooowly with stretches! The rule of thumb that I’ve heard is to wait three times as long as the initial healing period between each stretch.  Let your piercing toughen up between so there are no rips or tears.

Some piercings will continue to get crusty through their lives and still be well-healed (notably, nipples); others may just exude sebum, a smelly skin wax.  All piercings, when healed, still need regular cleaning with soap and water as part of a piercee’s routine.

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