How To Treat Infected Ear Piercings: A Dermatologist Explains
When you have an infected piercing, your first thought might be to take your jewelry out. While that might seem like the best thing to do, it’s best to leave this to your doctor. If your piercing is actually infected, and you remove the jewelry on your own, the bacteria and pus can get locked inside if the hole closes up. Instead, see a dermatologist, who will likely swab the area for a culture and start a course of topical and/or oral antibiotics to treat the infected skin piercing. Your derm will likely also want to monitor the area for potential abscess formation throughout your treatment plan. To learn more, we spoke to two dermatologists, Y. Claire Chang, and Alicia Zalka.
Meet the Expert
- Y. Claire Chang, MD, is a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in Manhattan.
- Alicia Zalka, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Yale. She also is the founder of Surface Deep.
Mild infections can be treated easily enough at home. If it’s just a little irritated, slightly red or warm, you can try a few things to clear it up on your own:
What You Need To Know About Pierced Ear Infections
Preventing earring hole infections all starts with proper hygiene both right after a piercing, and for years to come. If you recently got a piercing, make sure to wash hands thoroughly before touching the piercings to avoid exposing the area to any unwanted bacteria.
Piercings should also be soaked twice a day for two to five minutes with a saline or salt solution. A soaked, clean gauze can be used to gently clean the area, said cosmetic dermatologist Sejal Shah, founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology in New York City.
If your piercing is fully healed, make sure to clean both the earrings and piercing site whenever you remove your jewelry. Keep earrings clean by wiping them down with an antiseptic cleanser , Purell, soap and water or even mouthwash in a pinch. And do so often because buildup of any sort in your earrings can spell trouble.
Dead skin can build up around the backing as a result of dandruff or infrequent removal and serve as a nidus for germs, said Dr. Francesca Fusco of Wexler Dermatology in New York City.
How Are Infected Ear Piercings Treated
Your healthcare provider may recommend a variety of treatments to help an infected ear piercing heal. These may include:
- Applying a warm compress to the infected earlobe or cartilage.
- Rinsing the infected earlobe with sterile saline.
- Using antibiotic ointment on the affected area.
- Taking oral antibiotics for more severe infections.
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What About A Rejected Or Migrating Piercinghow Do You Treat That Issue
Foreign objects like piercings can be seen as threats by your body, which can causes a negative response at the piercing site, explains Dr. Nichols. “Generally when this happens, the body tries to fight the piercing by pushing it out and healing over it,” she says.
If it looks like your jewelry is moving away from the original piercing site, it could be migrating and your body may be rejecting it. Rejection can also be caused by infections or metal allergies.
The best thing to do when a piercing starts to migrate or get rejected is make an appointment with a medical professional or board-certified dermatologist. They will remove it immediately. Leaving it in will only further irritate the piercing site. “If youd like to re-pierce, keep the jewelry and bring it back to your piercer to ask about a different jewelry option,” Dr. Nichols advises.
Then make sure to follow all post-piercing care instructions and avoid touching or sleeping on the new piercing. Hopefully, with a different metal and proper care, the piercing will fully heal the second time around.
Causes Of Infections Later After The Pierced Ear Has Healed
- Not cleaning the earrings and posts daily
- Touching earrings with dirty hands
- Earring backs that are too tight against the earlobe. Reason: pressure from tight earrings reduces blood flow to the earlobe.
- Not taking the earrings out at night
- Anything that causes a scratch or tear in the ear channel. Examples are a heavy earring or a rough area on the post. Reason: any break in the skin can become infected.
- Putting the post in at the wrong angle also can scratch the channel. Use a mirror until putting the earring in becomes routine.
- Posts that have nickel in them can also cause an itchy, allergic reaction
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When To See The Doctor
Minor ear piercing infections can progress to perichondritis, abscess formation, and necrosis with or without systemic symptoms. Perichondritis is inflammation of the perichondrium, a layer of tissue surrounding the cartilage of the external part of the ear known as the pinna. Meanwhile, necrosis is a form of irreversible cell injury that results in the death of cells in the affected area.
For the above reasons, you should see the doctor promptly if home remedies down work. Most experts recommend seeing the doctor if the symptoms dont subside after a week of home treatment.
Using Inappropriate Or Cheap Jewelry
When you get your cartilage pierced, you will need to make sure that you make use of the right jewelry.
Using cheap studs, or studs made from nickel enhances your chances of getting infected through contact allergy.
When you have an allergic reaction, it means that bumps will begin to form due to this reaction. The presence of the bumps on your skin surface will mean that you are likely to get an infection because of constant touching, or because of irritation.
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Use Saline Solutions When Cleaning The Area
Saline solutions are the best home remedies when it comes to dealing with an infected cartilage piercing.
Even though the saline solution will not be able to kill any bacteria that is present, it helps keep the bacteria at minimum levels, in such a way that the body will be able to control how they spread.
- A single shot of distilled warm water
- A quarter teaspoon of table salt
Procedure to prepare:
What Ear Piercings Are Most Likely To Become Infected
There are so many options for spots on your ear you can pierce and, TBH, you can get an infection anywhere. That said, some spots are riskier than others. Piercings that go through ear cartilage are much more likely to become infected and are more difficult to treat than infections through the ear lobe or the soft tissues just above the lobe, Dr. Kaplan says.
Dr. Mankarious agrees. “Piercing infections are most likely to occur in areas where the blood supply is low and cartilage is notorious for a low blood supply,” she explains. “Cartilage infections can be particularly dangerous just for that reason.” In other words, it’s difficult for antibodies and antibiotics to reach the infection site when it’s in your cartilage, giving the infection the opportunity to take over.
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What Does An Infected Ear Piercing Look Like 10 Photos To Help You Spot An Infection
Plus, doctors explain what to do if you have one.
BY KORIN MILLER
In a perfect world, youd get your ears pierced and spend the rest of your life effortlessly rocking cute earrings. In reality? Sometimes piercings get infected, andnot gonna sugar-coat itit can be really effing gross.
Luckily, infected ear piercings arent the norm and, if you get pierced at a reputable place and practice solid piercing after-care, youre probably going to be just fine. Still, infected piercings can and do happen to good people. Whomp, whomp.
If you find your piercing looking or feeling a little…off, it can be hard to tell the difference between minor irritation and a full-blown infection. But Kenneth A. Kaplan, MD, an otolaryngologist with ENT and Allergy Associates in New Jersey, and Leila Mankarious, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, are here to clear things up that confusion and answer all the burning questions you have about infected ear piercings.
Plus, the 10 photos ahead can help you identify if you’re indeed dealing with an infection.
How do ear piercings even get infected?
Anyone can get an infected ear piercing, but it usually happens due to one of two major reasons, Dr. Kaplan says: Either your piercing site wasnt adequately sterilized before you were pierced, or you kinda-sorta-definitely didnt take great care of it after you were pierced.
Do only new ear piercings get infected?
What ear piercings are most likely to become infected?
Who Should Perform My Body Piercing
Before getting a piercing, do some research. Find a clean, safe piercing shop. Choose a professional with a good reputation to perform the piercing.
Do not pierce yourself or let anyone pierce you who is not a professional. Select the body site and jewelry carefully. Avoid jewelry made of nickel or brass. These metals can cause allergic reactions. Look for jewelry made of titanium, 14-carat gold, or surgical-grade steel.
The person doing the piercing should:
- Wash his or her hands well with a germicidal soap before doing the piercing.
- Wear disposable gloves.
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How Is Piercing Performed
A single-use, sterilized piercing gun is typically used to insert an earring into the earlobe. For other parts of the body, a hollow needle is used to pierce a hole in the skin. The person doing the piercing will insert a piece of jewelry into the hole.
The safest piercing guns are single-use guns. That means its only used on one customer and then thrown away. This decreases the risk of infection. Piercing guns with sterilized disposable cassettes are also acceptable. But they dont promise the same level of sterilizing that single-use piercing guns do.
Dont receive a piercing from a reusable piercing gun that does not have sterilized disposable cassettes. These types of piercing guns cannot be autoclaved. An autoclave is a sterilization machine that uses heat to sterilize all non-disposable piercing tools. It helps make sure all tools are clean before they touch your body. It is an important piece of equipment in a clean piercing shop. Not being able to autoclave a piercing gun increases the risk of infection.
Also, dont have a piercing performed with a piercing gun on any part of your body except your ear. Doing so can crush the skin and cause more injury than a piercing performed with a hollow needle.
What Causes Infected Ear Piercings
If bacteria gets into a new piercing, it can lead to infection. You may expose your new piercing to harmful bacteria by:
- Getting your ears pierced in an unhygienic environment or with unsterilized equipment.
- Touching your ears with dirty hands.
- Removing your earrings before the piercing heals.
- Neglecting to clean your new piercings daily.
- Swimming or submerging your head in a pool, hot tub, lake or river before your piercings fully heal.
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How Can I Prevent A Pierced Ear Infection
Taking good care of your piercings is key to preventing infection. You should:
- Leave your earrings in day and night until the piercings fully heal.
- Wash your hands before touching your earlobes or cartilage.
- Wash the piercing twice daily with a mild soap or cleanser.
- Apply rubbing alcohol and/or antibiotic ointment to the area twice daily.
- Gently rotate the earrings daily after applying antibiotic ointment or petroleum jelly to lubricate the piercing.
Ear Piercing Infection Treatment & Bumps
How do you treat an infected pierced ear? Treatment will rely on information based on ear piercing symptoms. For instance, are the infection symptoms severe or minor? Is treatment targeting an adult or child? We shall focus on treatments provided by health centers and then how to treat pierced ear infections with home remedies.
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How Common Are Infected Ear Piercings
Millions of people get their ears pierced, and most of them have no serious complications. Mild irritation and infections are common, however, for new piercings. In most cases, infections arent serious and clear up quickly.
The earlobes are fleshy and fatty, with strong blood flow. They heal quickly, reducing the risk of an earlobe infection. The upper ear is cartilage, a thick, stiff tissue with less blood flow.
Piercings in the upper ear are more likely to become infected, and infections in the upper ear are sometimes serious.
When To See An Ent Specialist For An Ear Infection
Make an appointment with an ENT specialist. As mentioned, a minor infection of an ear piercing can be treated at home successfully. However, if the following symptoms below develop, be sure to get medical assistance. A fever develops. Beyond the piercing site, the infection, or redness and inflammation, spreads. If within 2 days the infection doesnt improve with home treatment. The earring is immovable. The earring clasp is embedded in your skin.Remember, with proper care and cleaning, you can reduce the risk of ear piercing infections. In the event you experience an extreme case of infection, for assistance.
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How Long Do Ear Piercings Take To Heal
There are different types of tissue in different parts of your ear, so how long it takes to heal depends on your body and the place youve pierced. Earlobes usually take 6-8 weeks. If you pierce the cartilage on the side of your ear, it can take 4 months to a year. Ask your piercing professional for an estimate.
What Are Ear Infection Symptoms
If youve never had an earring hole infection before, you may not be familiar with the warning signs and symptoms, but theyre pretty straightforward. Warm, itchy, tender ears are a telltale sign of an infection, and your ears will also likely look red and a bit swollen.
Think of the four Ps: pain, pus, plumpness and pinkness
This usually would be accompanied by some sort of cut or scab on the ear, but not always, said Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital’s department of dermatology.
Some earring hole infections may also be accompanied by an oozy discharge, but not all ear discharge is cause for alarm. In fact, ears sometimes secrete a white to yellow thin liquid while healing from a piercing, and sebum from your oil glands can also collect on your piercings. If your discharge is light in color and not accompanied by pain, redness, warmth or swelling, it is probably not infected, Shah said.
An easy way to self-diagnose your infection? Fusco encourages patients to think of “the four Ps”: pain, pus, plumpness and pinkness. All indicate possible infection, she said.
The good news? Minor earring hole infections will typically only last a few days, and you can usually nip them in the bud with a few home remedies. If your situation doesnt improve in a few days, though, you may need to call in backup. Untreated infection could lead to more complicated infections that require drainage and oral antibiotics, Fusco said.
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Salt Or Chamomile Soaks
A salt or chamomile soak serves a dual purpose. For one, it relieves the swelling, redness, and pain. Secondly, it helps to clean the infected piercing. A salt soak is generally more effective, but chamomile is better for sensitive skin. You can do as many chamomile soaks per day as desired, but only 2 salt soaks are recommended per day.
How to make a soak:
- Boil 1 cup of water
- Add ¼ teaspoon of sea salt and stir until dissolved OR brew 1 chamomile tea bag
- Perform a salt soak by dipping a cotton pad into the solution and appling to the infection for 2 minutes
- For a chamomile soak, dip a cotton pad into the solution, or use the tea bag, and apply to the infection until it cools.
For both, you want to use hot water, but let it cool down enough that you wont hurt or damage your skin before dipping the cotton pad.
When To Visit A Doctor
Below you can find the alarming signs, indicating, that it is time to visit a doctor:
- Nothing helped in a few weeks
- Yellow or green discharge.
These are quite serious symptoms, requiring professional help and occasional treatment with antibiotics. Also, if your procedures at home are not effective, you must visit a doctor, or at least consult with an experienced piercer.
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Do Not Remove The Ear Jewelry
Removing can easily contaminate or cause germs being transferred to the earring bars leading to infection in earring hole after placement. Besides, it may cause unnecessary injury and lead to bleeding. Unless it is an old piercing or you are instructed to remove ear jewelry in order to clean properly, leave them alone.
Keep Your Piercing Clean
Cleaning is one of the most important aspects of taking care of your piercings. Ear lobe piercings can take 6-8 weeks to fully heal, and ear cartilage piercing 4 months to a year. Follow proper aftercare throughout this period.
Follow these steps to clean a mild ear piercing infection:
- Wash your hands
- Clean both sides of the piercing with a saline solution
- Do not remove the piercing jewellery
- Repeat twice daily until the piercing heals
You can also benefit from a gentle, unscented glycerine soap in the shower. Use after washing your hair and body, this will allow it to wash away any soap or shampoo residue.
If infection is suspected, never remove the jewellery until after the infection and piercing fully heal. removing the jewellery traps the infection inside. The skin can heal over the infection, preventing fluid from draining. This can lead to an abscess and a more severe infection.
For a severe infection, its best to consult a healthcare professional. If needed, they can prescribe antibacterial medication.
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