Ear Piercing Infections: Causes & Treatment

  • Written By Dan Hunter on December 15, 2018
    Last Updated: November 28, 2020

Even though many people sail through an ear piercing with no problems whatsoever, others aren’t as lucky. Infections are a common problem for any piercing, even one as routine as an ear piercing.

Infections aren’t fun, but keep in mind most of them are only temporary until you get them properly treated. It may suck for a while, but you’ll come out on the other side in no time by following the great advice presented within this article.


What Is An Ear Piercing Infection?

An ear piercing infection is when a simple ear piercing takes a drastic turn for the worse. In an infection, a harmful organism sets up shop in your piercing hole and starts causing problems that lead to a variety of symptoms.

Generally, a piercing infection occurs no differently than any other kind of skin infection. The infection develops due to bacteria getting into the open wound, and killing healthy cells throughout the area. This causes nasty visible symptoms and increases healing times until the infection is eradicated.

Infected Ear Piercing

What Causes An Infected Ear Piercing?

When bacteria get trapped in the small hole your piercer has created, it can have a hard time making its way out of there. If you neglect to perform your ear piercing cleaning, it is even less likely to exit that spot.

Once the bacteria is present, it begins to multiply. One thing leads to another and before long, you’ll have a whole team of bacteria in there causing problems. When it gets to that point, you’ll begin to see and feel the signs of infection.

Ear stretching can also be a cause for infection due to possible micro-tears during the stretching process.

Signs & Symptoms

You may think discovering an infection would be easy to do. After all, you’re going to be constantly looking in the mirror to admire your new piercing. If anything was truly wrong, surely you would notice it, right?

Before you dismiss certain warning signs as a normal part of the ear piercing process, you need to clearly understand what you can expect after having your ears pierced and what you shouldn’t expect to see.

Here are some common infection symptoms you should be on the lookout for. Still, you also have to keep in mind that just because you have one or some of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an infection. It could just be a side effect of the piercing procedure.

Increasing Pain

Ear piercings aren’t known for being high sources of pain. If kids can tolerate having it done, you should be able to, too. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any pain involved in having your ears pierced. They can hurt or be sore for the first few days after your sitting.

However, if the pain doesn’t subside, or continues to get even worse, then you may have an infection on your hands.

Redness

Redness is one of the vaguest symptoms of a possible infection because lots of things can cause redness. Even having the piercing done causes redness so it can be really difficult to tell when the redness is a normal part of the procedure or when it means trouble is on the way.

If it has been more than a week since your piercing, the redness shouldn’t be as bad as it was in the early days. Therefore, if you’re on week two of your piercing and the redness seems to be getting worse, you should keep a close eye on things. If you have some of the other symptoms in addition to redness, your odds of having an infection increase.

Infected Tragus Piercing

Swelling

This is another symptom that can be hard to decipher. Some swelling is to be expected after an ear piercing. You’ve just traumatized your skin or your cartilage, depending upon which location you’ve had pierced, so it’s understandable that there will be some slight swelling in the first few days.

If the swelling looks like you’re sprouting another body part off of your ear though, that’s a bit much. If it’s dramatic swelling like that, something else is going on.

If swelling becomes a real problem for you, you can always try wrapping an ice pack in a cloth and holding it on your ear for a few minutes. That can help with any pain you’re experiencing, but it can also relieve that swelling. Once the swelling comes down, you may be able to better assess the situation.

If the swollen area feels really hot when you touch it and is also accompanied by a lot of redness, you should be on high alert for a possible infection. Worsening pain is usually the first sign of infection.

An extreme case of swelling

Pus

One of the biggest indicators of infection is a lot of discharge coming out of the piercing site.

A little pus or discharge is normal after a piercing, and you may see discharge for several days. However, if it continues past that, or if it seems to be slowing down before becoming a real problem again, you may have an infection.

Also, if the amount of discharge seems to stay the same but it changes in color and is no longer clear or whitish, this can spell out an infection too.

The final thing to watch out for regarding pus is how it smells. Normally, you shouldn’t notice much of a smell at all with healthy discharge. If you’re starting to wince a little because the pus smells so bad, you may want to consider calling your doctor.

Fever

Of all the possible infection symptoms, you should fear this one the most. If you have a fever, that means the infection has spread beyond the site of your piercing. A simple local skin infection won’t cause a fever. This is a systematic (full-body) symptom.

When you end up with a fever because of an infection, home treatment isn’t the right thing to do. You need to book a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible, even if it’s just to be cautious.

How To Treat An Infected Ear Piercing

If there is no fever present and the infection seems to be mild and isn’t causing you too much pain, you can try to treat it at home. This is especially true if the piercing site is limited to the cartilage-free ear lobe.

If the infection is from a helix piercing on the cartilage, you should seek medical attention. When you get an infection there, it can be harder to self-treat. It’s best if you just head into the doctor to cover your bases instead.

To treat a minor ear piercing infection on your own, you should make sure to wash your hands thoroughly before you touch the piercing site. You don’t want to introduce any more dirt, germs or bacteria into the fold.

Next, you’ll want to prepare a saline solution to apply to the infection. To do this, you’ll take one-fourth of a teaspoon of sea salt and mix it well with one cup of boiling water. Let the water cool so you don’t scald yourself. While the water is still warm, you can use your fingers to apply the salt water to the front and the back of the piercing site.

Although you may use cotton balls and Q-tips to apply the liquid as well, and if you do, make sure you aren’t leaving any cotton fibers behind that may get trapped in your piercing.

If you’d prefer not to mess about with making up a salt water solution, there are plenty of specialist sprays available on the market.

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.

When your piercing has been thoroughly cleaned and it comes time to dry the area off, you shouldn’t reach for your bath towel. There are two reasons those are off-limits.

The towels might already have germs on them, especially if they aren’t fresh out of the dryer. The second reason for avoiding using towels is the same reason you might not want to use cotton balls and Q-tips – the cotton fibers that can get left behind.

Instead, you should use clean, dry paper towels when you need to dry your ears. Since they are single-use, they have less chance of being contaminated when you’re using them.

You should make sure to clean the infected area twice a day with the sea salt solution. You should space out the cleanings as best as you can. A good goal to shoot for is doing it once in the morning and once in the evening.

You may be tempted to rub other topical ingredients onto your infected area, like rubbing alcohol, antibiotic creams or hydrogen peroxide. You shouldn’t add those items though. They may be too drying or irritating for the skin. That can put the brakes on any healing that is occurring.

Another thing you might be tempted to do is to take your piercing out. You may think this will help drain the pus out of the wound quicker, but that’s a big mistake.

If you take out the piercing, the hole will rapidly close up, perhaps before your infection clears up. If that happens, the infection will be trapped inside with nowhere to go. It’s always best to give it a route to drain out, so the ideal thing to do is to leave your piercing in.

If you find self-care isn’t helping with the infection after a few days, you may want to enlist the help of a doctor to ensure further damage is prevented as much as possible.

Prevention

Sometimes infections occur and you never figure out why. On the other hand, there’s a smoking gun that tips us off as to why things went south and an infection ended up setting in.

If you know you were lax about following the basic aftercare hygiene instructions your piercer gave you, you know what went wrong the first time. Following a good ear piercing care routine is your best bet for dodging any future infections.

You should always remember to wash your hands before touching the piercing site. This is one of the best ways to prevent the transfer of bacteria. Also ensure to keep the jewelry clean, and never put in unsterilized jewelry.

Being careful not to injure your piercing site is another great way to keep your piercing infection-free. Damaged or injured skin allows bacteria in. It gives them an open door to start doing their damage.

If you go back for additional piercings on your ear, you should look for a reputable piercer to do the work. You’ll want to hire someone who has high standards for hygiene and isn’t afraid to show you exactly how he meets this standard.

A few minutes of questioning your potential piercer can often give you big clues about whether they’re the best choice to do the work. If they can’t show you packaged sterile hollow needles, you should have serious doubts about whether their equipment is sterile in the first place.

Old Ear Piercing Infections

While infections are much more common in new ear piercings, they can definitely still occur in older ones, too.

When it comes to infections in an older piercing, the symptoms will be much the same as in newer ones, and treatment will also be similar. You should still make sure to clean both sides of the piercing with a salt water solution, and only handle the area with clean hands until the infection has completely cleared up.

Which Piercings Are More Likely To Become Infected?

All piercings begin as deep wounds, and therefore an infection can occur at any piercings site. However, some piercings are more prone to infections than others.

Cartilage piercings are, in general, more likely to become infected, and they are also usually more difficult to treat. This is because blood flow to cartilage is very low, which is a problem on two fronts.

Firstly, the body struggles to send enough bacteria-fighting cells, oxygen and nutrients to the area to prevent an initial infection due to the low blood flow going to the area.

Secondly, because of this low blood flow, antibiotics will also struggle to travel to the area of infection, meaning that treatment will generally take longer to complete.

Summary

Now you know a little more about ear piercing infections, it may cushion the blow if you learn that you have one. The main thing to do is to take a deep breath and avoid panicking; most infections are highly treatable with little long-term damage as long as you attempt to treat the infection as quickly as possible.

Your ear may temporarily look and feel a bit gross, but the good thing is that many infections are usually short-lived and minor.