Cartilage Piercing Infections – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

  • Written By Dan Hunter on July 15, 2018
    Last Updated: January 10, 2021

The possibility of infection is something your piercer should always discuss with you when you get your cartilage pierced. While cartilage piercing infections are generally mild, they can cause illness and permanent disfigurement to the area if you don’t seek treatment fast enough.

To keep your cartilage piercing looking its best, and to avoid long-term complications that could require serious antibiotics, follow our advice on the causes, symptoms, and treatment of both mild and serious cartilage piercing infections.


What is a Cartilage Piercing Infection?

A cartilage piercing infection occurs when bacteria enter the opening of your new piercing. Infections typically crop up early in the healing process, when the wound from the piercing is still open.

Although minor redness, swelling and soreness can be expected after getting a cartilage piercing, more serious signs of infection can include intense pain, burning sensations, green or yellow discharge, or a bad odor coming from the piercing site.

Of course, it can take quite a while for a cartilage piercing to fully heal, a minimum of three months and usually more, so the likelihood of infection remains for a longer period of time when compared to ear lobe piercings or piercings in other fleshy areas.

Unlike infections in other areas, an infected ear piercing can spread from the surface down into the cartilage itself. This means it can cause further complications and become difficult to treat.

Infections can also be the reason for that unsightly bump that forms around the site of the piercing sometimes, although a bump isn’t always the sign of an infection (it could be a keloid scar).

What Causes Cartilage Piercing Infections?

Sometimes, there’s nothing you could have done differently to stop an infection. Bacteria are sneaky little pests. But most of the time, there is a preventable cause behind a cartilage piercing infection. Here are the top reasons for an infection taking hold:

Unsanitary conditions at the piercing location

Reputable piercers make sure that everything used in the piercing process, such as the piercing needle, is clean and sterilized. They’ll also make sure they have clean hands or wear gloves. Anything (objects or body parts) that can harbor bacteria can be a potential cause of infection.

More experienced professionals do tend to charge more for their work, but this small additional cost is completely worth it – you only get one body after all so take care of it.

Touching your piercing

That goes for your own hands, too. And the hands of your friends. Keep a no-touching rule for your piercings, and you’ll be much less likely to pick up an infection. Any time you need to clean your new cartilage piercing, wash your hands first to reduce infection risk.

Not following appropriate aftercare and cleaning advice

When you get your cartilage pierced, your piercer should give you instructions on how to clean and take care of the wound while it heals.

Follow what they say, and use the products they suggest. You should be using saline, or sea salt solution to soak your piercing every day, and you can wash the jewelry with small amount of soap and water, before rinsing well.

Not caring for a new piercing properly can delay healing times, especially if an infection takes hold.

The best aftercare product I’ve personally used is the After Inked Piercing Aftercare Spray. Not only is it vegan, but it’s also completely alcohol and additive-free. The solution works well on all skin types including sensitive skin, and it comes in a generously-sized mist-spraying bottle for easy application. When using it from the very start of the healing process, the spray helps to decrease healing times and aims to eliminate any lingering pain or soreness.

Wearing cheap jewelry

Bacteria is always somewhat present. There’s bacteria on your ear right now; but most of the time these small amounts of non-harmful bacteria don’t cause a problem. That is, unless something else irritates your piercing, making you more susceptible to developing an infection.

Using cheap jewelry is one of those things that can cause irritation or an allergic reaction, and when your ear is in a vulnerable state, it struggles to fight off otherwise normal levels of bacteria. Make sure that any new jewelry you get is made of gold, steel, or titanium to minimize any risk of irritation. These metals are less likely to cause reactions.

Injuring the piercing

As with wearing cheap jewelry, anything that irritates the pierced area makes it more susceptible to infection. When your body is dealing with an injury, irritation, or an allergic reaction, it is less able to deal with other issues like bacteria infiltration.

To reduce your infection risk, don’t sleep on a new piercing, and take precautions when playing sports or engaging in other rough activities, such as dancing at concerts, so that your cartilage piercing doesn’t get bumped or pulled.

Sign & Symptoms Of Cartilage Piercing Infections

You don’t want to wait until your cartilage piercing is severely infected before commencing treatment, as this increases the chance that you’ll need to seek medical intervention. If you catch the infection early, there’s no reason why you can’t treat it effectively at home.

To catch a cartilage piercing infection in the early stages, look for these symptoms:

Red, tender skin around the piercing

When your skin looks red and is sore to the touch, that’s a sign of inflammation. If this occurs, your skin may also feel warm or hot. This is because an elevated body temperature helps certain types of immune cells to work better when fighting bacteria and viruses.

Note that your skin is going to be red and tender for the first couple of days after getting a new piercing, and that’s just a part of the normal healing process. However, if the initial redness passes and then comes back, or if the piercing remains red for longer than just a few days, you should treat it as though it’s infected.

Discharge draining from the piercing

A healing cartilage piercing may drain a bit of clear fluid and form a crust, which is not a cause for alarm. On the other hand, if the discharge coming from the piercing is yellowish or green and/or smells bad, then it is pus, which a sign of infection.

Prolonged bleeding and scabbing

Of course, there may be a bit of blood on the first day or two after receiving a new piercing; you have a wound in your ear, after all. Despite this, when everything is going smoothly, the bleeding should clear up relatively quickly. If your piercing continues to bleed after a few days, it could be infected.

Cartilage Piercing Infection

How To Treat An Infected Cartilage Piercing

The first thing to know about treating an infected ear piercing is that you should not remove the earring. Keeping your jewelry in place actually helps the piercing to drain, which needs to happen in order for your body to get rid of the problematic bacteria and flush out the wound.

You should also continue your daily cleaning process, gently rubbing around the ear piercing site with salt water or pre-made saline solution. You should then try one or more of the following suggestions:

Increase the number of salt water soaks

Thoroughly clean your piercing up to three times per day with salt water or saline. If you have an infection, making your own salt water for soaking can be better because using the solution while it’s still warm will soothe the infected area.

Apply a warm compress

In addition to soaking with warm salt water, you can put a clean, warm cloth or gauze soaked in salt water on the infected area, or use a chamomile tea bag that has been steeped in hot water.

Let it cool to a comfortable temperature before applying it to your piercing. Salt helps to disinfect, chamomile has natural healing properties, and the warmth can help with blood flow to the area of cartilage.

Apply a cold compress

Alternating between warm and cold being applied to the infected area will increase blood supply to the cartilage. Cartilage tends to have less blood flow than fleshy areas of the body, so this can really make a difference.

Better blood supply means more antibodies are delivered to the area to fight the infection.

Use an antibacterial spray

Topical antibiotics can help get rid of an infection faster. Be sure to use a spray, like Bactine. Antibiotic ointments will prevent the piercing from draining.

Try tea tree oil

Tea tree oil has natural antibacterial properties and helps to soothe inflammation. You can mix a drop or two with a carrier oil, such as coconut oil or jojoba oil, and then gently apply it to your infected cartilage piercing. Use tea tree oil two or three times per day and always make sure it is properly diluted to avoid an allergic reaction.

When To Seek Medical Assistance

If your cartilage piercing infection gets worse or persists for more than a week, you should seek medical assistance.

Infections can spread throughout the cartilage to the rest of your ear, potentially causing long-term damage. You may require a strong oral antibiotic to prevent this from happening.

What Happens After A Cartilage Piercing Infection?

You should continue whichever treatment you were using for a few days after symptoms are gone, to ensure that the infection has been fully treated. If you were prescribed oral antibiotics, make sure to finish the entire course, even if all symptoms have disappeared.

How To Prevent Cartilage Piercing Infections In The Future

Once your piercing is free from infection, you can take a few easy steps to prevent another infection in the future.

  • Don’t touch your piercing with dirty hands, and don’t twist or play with it
  • Continue cleaning the piercing with saline daily until it’s fully healed
  • Sleep so the piercing is not pressed against your pillow and make sure you have a clean pillow and pillowcase just in case you move around at night.

Summary

Following proper aftercare and taking a few precautions can usually prevent a cartilage piercing infection from happening.

However, if you do develop an infection, don’t panic. They can usually be treated at home with daily cleaning and a topical treatment like tea tree oil, hot and cold compresses, or antibiotics prescribed by a medical professional.