Infected ear piercing: causes, symptoms and treatment

Young man expressing ear pain

Ear infections resulting from earrings and piercings can be a common concern, even when these procedures are carried out in licensed establishments with stringent hygiene practices. In this article, we'll delve into the causes, symptoms, and treatments for ear infections caused by earrings and piercings, aiming to provide you with the knowledge to address this issue effectively.

How to treat a pierced ear infection

Treating an ear piercing infection is crucial for a speedy recovery and to prevent complications.

If you encounter signs of infection or an allergic response, you can initially attempt home remedies within the first 48 hours. Nevertheless, if the symptoms persist or if you develop a fever, it's crucial to consult a medical professional to avert potential complications. Here are steps to help you treat a pierced ear infection:

Home remedies

During the first 48 hours of the onset of symptoms of a piercing infection, it is possible to consider home remedies as an initial measure. This includes cleaning the piercing twice a day using a saline solution, which can be purchased in ready-made form or prepared at home by mixing water with common salt.

It is essential to keep the wound as clean as possible. This is achieved by careful washing of the affected area with neutral soap and gentle drying using gauze to avoid causing additional damage to the skin.

The use of saline to wash the wound also helps to keep the wound clean and prevents the progression of infection. After washing the wound, it is important to dry the ear carefully using sterile gauze.

For mild infections, following these tips, along with the application of a specialised antibiotic cream, may be sufficient to relieve pain and achieve healing of the helix piercing. However, in more severe cases characterised by severe pain, pus or fever, it is essential to seek medical attention.

Seek medical attention

If you suspect an ear infection caused by piercing, it's essential to consult a healthcare professional. They can assess the severity of the infection and provide appropriate treatment.

Keep the area clean

Regularly clean the infected piercing to ensure proper healing. A saline solution is a gentle and effective option for cleaning. You can either buy a pre-made saline solution from a drugstore or make one at home by mixing warm water and non-iodized salt.

Antibiotics for ear piercing infection

Apply antibiotic ointment to the affected area as recommended by your healthcare provider. This can help combat the infection and promote healing. In cases of more severe infections, your healthcare provider may prescribe oral antibiotics to address the infection systemically.

Avoid irritants

During the healing process, avoid exposing the pierced area to irritants like sunlight, sand, pool water, and cosmetics. Prolonged exposure to these elements can hinder the healing process and potentially lead to further infection.

Don't remove the earring

It's essential not to remove the earring for longer than necessary to clean it, as this can impede the healing process and increase the risk of infection.
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When to go to doctor for ear piercing infection

If the infection does not improve within 48 hours or you experience fever, it is important to see a doctor. They can prescribe local antibiotic creams or oral antibiotics as needed.

Types of pierced ear infections

There are two main types of ear piercings – through the earlobes and through the cartilage of the upper ear.

  • Earlobe piercings tend to heal more quickly, with a lower risk of infection, thanks to strong blood flow. 
  • On the other hand, upper ear cartilage piercings are more prone to infections due to their limited blood flow.

1. Newly pierced ear infection

Following the piercing of your ears, it is common to encounter a period of mild discomfort and pain lasting several weeks. Nevertheless, if you begin to observe supplementary indications such as increased redness, swelling, or heightened irritation, these could serve as potential indicators of an infection. Disregarding or postponing the treatment of these manifestations might result in the development of more serious complications.

2. Old ear piercing infection

Failing to address an ear infection in a timely manner can worsen the situation and potentially lead to more critical consequences. To avert the deterioration of a longstanding piercing infection, it is strongly advised to promptly seek medical care and undergo a comprehensive dermatological assessment. This assessment aids in pinpointing the underlying issue and guarantees the application of suitable treatment, preventing the infection from spreading and expediting the recovery process.

3. Infected ear lobe piercing

Infected ear lobe piercings typically affect the soft tissue of the earlobe. Symptoms may include redness, swelling, pain, and discharge. To treat this type of infection, it's important not to remove the earring, clean the infected area three times a day, and wash your hands before touching it. Consult a healthcare professional if the infection doesn't improve with home care.

4. Back of ear piercing infected

Infections behind the ear can occur when piercings are done in the cartilage area. Symptoms may include pain, redness, swelling, and discharge. Cartilage piercings have a higher risk of infection compared to earlobe piercings. For an infected cartilage piercing, it's advisable to seek medical attention, especially if the piercing becomes painful, itchy, red, and swollen.

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5. Crusty ear piercing infection

A crusty ear piercing infection often presents with the formation of crust or scab around the piercing site. This can be a sign of infection or delayed healing. It's essential to keep the area clean and follow proper aftercare to prevent crust formation.

If it persists, consult a professional piercer or a healthcare provider for advice.

6. Infected tragus, septum and helix

For piercings in sensitive areas such as the helix, tragus, rook, or daith, it's vital to grasp the recommended care procedures. The disinfection methods and time needed for healing can differ based on the type of piercing. Therefore, it's important to consult with your piercer to get a clear understanding of the unique care required for each type of piercing. Comprehending the particular aftercare and healing instructions for various piercings is essential to ensure a successful healing process and minimize the risk of complications.

Symptoms of ear piercing infection

It is essential to recognise the symptoms of an ear piercing infection in order to take early action. The main symptoms include:

  • Redness and swelling around the wound: An infection often manifests itself with redness and swelling in the area of the piercing.
  • Throbbing or warmth in the piercing area: You may experience a throbbing or warm sensation in the affected area.
  • The presence of a bump or ear piercing bubble: Indicating localized infection and trapped fluids
  • Painful to the touch and excessive sensitivity: The infected piercing is often painful to the touch, and the surrounding skin may be very sensitive.
  • Foul-smelling discharge of yellowish or greenish fluid (pus): A collection of pus is a clear sign of infection. This discharge may have an unpleasant odour.
  • Fever: In severe cases of infection, you may experience fever.

Ear pain after piercing

It's common to experience ear pain and sensitivity following an ear piercing, which can last for several weeks. However, if the pain persists and is accompanied by symptoms like fever, throbbing, or the presence of pus, it's crucial to seek medical attention. These signs may indicate an infection, which can worsen if not treated promptly.

Pus formation post-piercing

In cases where bacterial infections are left untreated, they can lead to the accumulation of pus around the piercing. In such instances, it might be necessary to surgically drain the abscess, potentially resulting in scarring. Seeking prompt medical attention is essential to prevent the infection from progressing and causing more severe complications.

Skin lumps following ear piercing

Sometimes, the skin may develop lumps or keloids in response to an ear piercing injury. While these lumps may resolve on their own within a few months, in severe cases, surgical removal may be required. If you experience significant symptoms, it's important to consult a medical professional who can provide appropriate treatment recommendations.
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What causes ear piercing infection?

Ear piercing infections can be caused by several factors. These include:

  • Inadequate hygiene during the procedure: infection can occur if the piercing is performed under poor hygienic conditions. It is essential to choose an approved and specialised centre to minimise this risk.
  • Inadequate care during healing: After piercing, it is crucial to follow the hygiene recommendations provided by the piercing professional. If not properly cared for, the wound can become infected.
  • Contact with bacteria on our hands: Touching the pierced area with dirty hands can introduce bacteria into the wound and cause infection.

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Consequences of an ear piercing infection

In case of a suspected ear infection due to piercing, it's vital to seek immediate medical attention to avoid potential complications. Timely treatment with either home remedies or prescribed antibiotics can lead to a quick resolution of the infection without significant consequences. However, neglecting treatment can result in the development of abscesses, sepsis, toxic shock syndrome, scarring, and allergic reactions.

Allergies arising from earring use

Nickel is the most prevalent cause of earring allergies, with symptoms typically appearing as a skin rash accompanied by itching within 12-48 hours of contact. Failure to remove the earring can lead to persistent rash. Additional symptoms may include redness, itching, skin peeling, blisters, and fluid discharge.

Allergy-related infections

Allergic reactions to irritating or non-allergic metals can trigger infections. This happens because the allergy induces itching, which, in turn, may lead to scratching the affected area, increasing the risk of infection.

Remedies for allergic infections

An effective treatment for nickel allergies involves a vaccine that induces tolerance to nickel. This approach has been in use for many years and is generally well-tolerated. Symptoms of nickel allergy can also be managed using topical products or oral medications as prescribed by a healthcare professional. It's advisable to use earrings made from hypoallergenic materials like 14-carat gold, surgical steel, or silver to prevent allergic reactions.

Cauliflower ear

Cauliflower ear can result from improperly done or infected piercings. Typically, these side effects are mild, and tissue damage heals quickly. It's crucial to wait until there is no swelling, and the ear has returned to normal before undergoing any form of piercing.

Fibroid or cyst behind the ear

After getting an ear piercing, inflammation in the earlobe can lead to the development of a reactive fibroid or cyst behind the ear. This can appear as a small, painful lump situated behind the earlobe, causing discomfort upon touch.

Causes of a cyst behind the ear

A probable cause of a cyst behind the ear is the formation of a reactive fibrous nodule or a small cyst within the earlobe, which results in a partial blockage of the piercing hole.

This obstruction can induce irritation and potentially increase the risk of infection when wearing earrings.

Treating a cyst behind the ear

If you experience this symptom, it is advisable to avoid wearing earrings and cleanse the affected earlobe. A healthcare provider may recommend cortisone or antibiotic cream for topical application. If the problem persists, consulting a dermatologist is necessary to explore solutions. In severe cases, surgical intervention may be required.

How to clean an ear piercing infection

For a proper ear cleaning in the area of an infected piercing, follow these steps:

  • Wash your hands: Start by thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water to prevent the introduction of more bacteria into the infected area.
  • Saline solution: Use a saline solution specifically made for wound care. Gently soak a clean cotton ball or pad in the saline solution, then apply it to the infected piercing. Let it sit for a few minutes to help clean the area and loosen any crust or discharge.
  • Remove crust or discharge: After soaking, carefully wipe away any crust or discharge that has softened, being gentle to avoid causing further irritation.
  • Avoid touching: Refrain from touching your infected piercing with dirty hands. Keep contact to a minimum to prevent the spread of bacteria.
  • Antibiotic ointment (if recommended): If your healthcare provider prescribes an antibiotic ointment, apply it according to their instructions.
  • Keep it dry: Ensure that the area stays dry, as moisture can promote infection. Avoid swimming in pools or hot tubs until the infection has healed.
  • Follow professional advice: If the infection is severe or doesn't improve with at-home care, seek medical attention. In some cases, oral antibiotics may be required to treat the infection.

Remember that maintaining good hygiene and keeping the area clean is crucial in preventing and treating ear piercing infections. Be cautious not to over-clean the area, as excessive cleaning can also irritate the piercing. Consult with a healthcare professional for guidance if the infection persists or worsens.

Caring for infected ear piercing

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To avoid ear infections, it's crucial to:

  • Visit a licensed and skilled piercing studio
  • Steer clear of do-it-yourself (DIY) piercings
  • Adhere to the sanitation guidelines provided by the piercer
  • Prioritize regular hand washing before handling the pierced area

FAQs about infected ear piercing

Why is my ear piercing infected?

An ear piercing can become infected due to various factors, including poor aftercare, exposure to a dirty environment, and the use of low-quality jewelry. Infections can also result from touching the piercing with dirty hands, allergic reactions to certain metals, excessive moisture, or contact with foreign objects containing bacteria. To reduce the risk of infection in ear piercings, it is essential to maintain proper hygiene, follow aftercare instructions, and use high-quality jewelry. If an infection does occur, prompt treatment is necessary to prevent complications.

Should you pop an infected ear piercing?

No, you should not pop an infected ear piercing. Popping or squeezing an infected piercing can introduce more bacteria, worsen the infection, and potentially lead to complications. Instead, it's essential to follow proper care and treatment for an infected ear piercing, which may include cleaning the area with a saline solution, avoiding excessive touching, and seeking medical attention if the infection persists or worsens.

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