When you get your ears pierced — whether at a tattoo parlor or a kiosk in the mall — you should receive instructions on how to prevent an infection. You should also receive assurance that only sterile tools and hygienic practices are used.
But when protocol isn’t followed, or if you don’t follow post-piercing cleaning instructions closely enough, infection can occur. You can usually treat an ear piercing infection fairly easily and without complications.
How infections happen
A piercing is essentially an open wound until it heals. This usually takes six to eight weeks. Cartilage piercings (on the harder part of your ear) take longer to heal and are more prone to infection than piercings of the earlobe. In the meantime, there are several ways your ear piercing can get infected.
Any bacteria left to fester can quickly turn into an infection.
If you touch your piercing with dirty hands or instruments, you can introduce an infection. If the earrings are on too tightly, not allowing room for the wound to breathe and heal, an infection can develop. A piercing can also get infected if the post is rough or otherwise causes irritation.
Finally, if unsterile instruments were used, if the person piercing your ears didn’t use gloves, or if the posts themselves weren’t sterile, an infection can take hold.
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What an infected ear piercing looks like
Identifying an infected ear piercing is pretty simple. Symptoms may include:
yellow, pus-like discharge
ongoing pain or tenderness
itching and burning
Treating the infection at home
As long as the infection is minor, you may be able to take care of it at home. If you’ve had a cartilage piercing and it seems infected, seek medical treatment. These types of infections are harder to treat.
Follow these steps to take care of a minor piercing infection:
Remove the earring three times each day and clean its post with rubbing alcohol. If you can’t easily remove and replace the earring, leave it in if possible and see your doctor.
Clean the piercing on both sides of your earlobe, using a cotton ball or swab to dab sterile saline on it.
Before reinserting the earring, cover its post with a small amount of antibiotic ointment to help the infection heal.
This protocol should be followed for at least two days after the infection appears cleared.
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When you should see a doctor
Usually, an infected ear piercing can be treated successfully at home. However, if any of the following symptoms occur, seek medical attention:
The earring can’t be removed or the clasp becomes embedded in your skin.
The infection doesn’t improve with home treatment within two to three days.
A fever develops.
The infection, or redness and inflammation, spreads beyond the piercing site.
How to prevent an infection
Make sure you have your ears pierced professionally. Don’t do it at home. Wherever you go, ask about their infection prevention protocol. Also make sure to ask if their tools are sterile, and look to see whether the earrings they use come out of a new, sterile package.
After the piercing, clean your ears daily with the solution provided or with an antiseptic. Turn the earring post three times twice a day to promote healing and prevent sticking.
Getting your ears pierced should be a few moments of pain in exchange for the chance to dress up your earlobes. When an infection strikes, treating it promptly ensures faster healing with few complications.