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Who doesn't like being in trend? From hair colour to high-end fashion accessories and tattoos, there is always a new ‘in’ thing that you would see everywhere no matter where you turn to.

Ear piercing is one such trend that is considered as one of the many ways of self-expression. Though piercings have always been a tradition in many cultures, they are also associated with various risks, especially if not done properly.

Overlooking small details such as hygiene, sterilization of equipment, earrings and post-piercing care could lead to microbial growth and infection of the ear, which in severe cases could pose a risk to health.

(Read more: Ear infection (Otitis Media)

While most people are now aware of the health risks of this tiny procedure, it is quite easy to get swayed. After all, if a place is providing piercings it may know it all. Right? Absolutely not. Always check twice for hygiene before getting a needle inside your skin.

But how would you know what all to look for?

Read on to know almost every possible detail about ear piercing right from how it can get infected, symptoms and treatment of an infected ear piercing as well as prevention from getting further infection. Looks like a lot of information? Just hold tight and read the whole piece of document to gather all the essentials regarding infected ear piercing.

  1. How ear piercing can get infected
  2. Symptoms of infected ear piercing
  3. How to treat an infected ear piercing at home
  4. Preventing piercing infection in ear
  5. When to see a doctor for infected ear piercing

Whenever you get an ear lobe piercing, an instrument goes through your ear lobe or other parts of your external ear and creates an open wound in the specific area. An open wound, just like any other wound goes through the process of wound healing. Wound healing in itself in a complex mechanism. It requires various chemical mediators, immune responses and a healthy wound environment. Any imbalance or deterioration in the process of natural wound healing will delay it.

  • Environment sustains various microorganisms, which always makes an open wound susceptible to infection. If you don't take proper care of the wound, microorganisms in the environment settle on the wound leading to infection in the piercing. Most commonly associated bacteria in ear piercing infection are skin pathogens like Streptococcus and Staphylococcus.
  • The instrument used for piercing is one of the most common reasons for infection. An unsterile instrument harbours bacteria, which eventually stick to the hole created by it and grows there. This delays wound healing and further leads to infection.
  • Ear piercing is like a mini surgical procedure. So, it is important that the person in charge of the piercing should also follow proper hygiene. Any mishappening with the handling of sterile instruments, not wearing sterile gloves, piercing by bare unwashed hands or poor hygiene may provide an easy pathway for the bacteria to get inside the wound, which will eventually lead to infection.
  • If your body is suffering from some underlying pathology like psoriasis, or dermatitis at the site of piercing, it greatly increases the risk of infection. People with valvular heart disease should avoid getting an ear piercing as an infection could further worsen their condition. They also have a higher chance of getting a piercing infection due to a suppressed immune system.
  • Sometimes, even when everything is well taken care of it is hard to avoid an infection. Well, bacteria are notorious enough and don't miss any chance of survival. In that case, post-piercing care plays a vital role in wound healing.

After knowing the ways an ear piercing can get infected, next comes the identification of red flags of infection, also known as symptoms of infection. Only by knowing the symptoms of infection, you can work to find a way to get rid of it or treat it. Here is a list of few major symptoms that you will be noticing if your piercing got infected:

  • Redness around the pierced area
  • Swelling on the pierced site
  • Intense pain in the pierced area
  • Pus discharge from the pierced site
  • Fever

Once you recognise a developing infection at the piercing site, it is best to act immediately in order to limit the infection as well as to eliminate it completely so that the wound can heal well. If you take the infection lightly, it might get severe with time and cause septicemia.

But that is just an extreme condition and in most cases, the infection can be treated right at the beginning. There are a bunch of solutions available to halt the progression of infection and getting rid of it. Just for your convenience, the treatment part is divided into home remedies or self-care and drugs like topical antibiotics.

  1. Self care at home
  2. Antibiotics for ear piercing infection

Self care at home

Self-care is the best way to prevent and reduce infections associated with an ear piercing. When followed properly, these techniques also eliminate the need for over the counter medicines or a visit to a doctor.

Touch me not

The first and foremost thing to limit the infection is by following a no-touch rule. It's totally understandable that you are concerned about the wound and in such case, the mind tends to drag all the attention towards the point of concern. However, following your mind is not a good idea here. Touching the infected wound will promote the spread of bacteria through your hands to the pierced ear, causing infection. It will also worsen the infection if you already have acquired one.  So, it's wise to have some control over your hand and let the wound heal on its own.

Clean the infected site

Only a clean and hygienic piercing site will promote healing in the most natural way possible. So, it is best to take extra care for keeping your ear and piercing clean. While bathing, use a liquid soap or shower gel to clean the piercing site. This will help wash away some of the bacteria and dead cells and promote wound healing. If the piercing has developed pus, make sure to clean the discharging pus from time to time. Here is an easy way to clean the pus from the infected ear:

What you’ll need:

  • A cotton bud or a clean soft towel or a tissue

Procedure:

  • Gently swipe the cotton or tissue over the pus to collect it and wipe it off
  • Try not to touch it with bare hands while you are doing so
  • If it is leaking constantly you can try draining it a bit, though avoid putting extra pressure since it may lead to pain

Essential oils

To stimulate healing at the infected side the total bacterial load in that area needs to drop. One of the best ways to do it is by application of essential oils.

Essential oils contain active volatile substances, which possess antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. These oils not only help in eradicating infectious microorganisms, but they also decrease susceptibility of further infection in the open wound and promote skin regeneration.

Few essential oils which are beneficial in healing wound infections caused by ear piercings are tea tree oil, lavender oil and oregano oil. These oils have been scientifically proven to be effective in reducing the growth of pathogenic bacteria like Streptococcus and Pseudomonas, which are the most common causes of piercing infections. To get the best possible pharmacological effects of essential oils, you need to apply these oils topically on the infection site in the following way.

What you’ll need:

  • The essential oil of your choice
  • A sterile cotton bud

Procedure:

  • Put a few drops of essential oil onto the cotton bud
  • Apply it on the wound
  • You need to do this a few times a day until the wound starts to reduce in size

Tip: Not all essential oils are safe to be used directly on the skin, some may lead to irritation. So, it is best to dilute the oil with some amount of carrier oil to make a 2% solution.

Eat foods rich in vitamin C

Nourishing yourself from inside is as important as any topical application to prevent or treat health conditions, specifically infections. Amongst the various macro and micronutrients, vitamins C plays an important role in maintaining our immune responses. It promotes the formation of immune system cells so that your body can actively fight against infections.

Furthermore, collagen (a skin protein) makes the framework for wound healing and for collagen production you need to provide your body with vitamin C. So, for rapid wound healing, vitamin C becomes one of the essential precursors.

Include food sources rich in vitamin C like citrus fruits in your diet to get all of these benefits from this micronutrient. You can also take vitamin C supplements to compensate the deficiency; however, it is always best to check in with a doctor before taking any kind of supplements as most of our needs are usually compensated by the food we eat.

Eat green leafy vegetables and fresh fruits for other essential nutrients required for wound healing like vitamin A, zinc and copper. 

Warm compress

This may sound wrong to use for an infected wound like ear piercing. However, studies have proven that warm compress helps in delivering heat to the wound site, thereby increasing the blood circulation locally and increased infiltration of immune system cells.

You can use any cotton cloth to make your own warm compress at home.

What you’ll need:

  • A cotton cloth
  • Warm water

Procedure:

  • Dip the cloth in water
  • Clean the infected area gently with it
  • After cleaning, mildly compress the wound site with a warm wet cloth to stimulate healing
  • Make sure the water is warm enough but not too hot as it may cause burns

You can also add sea salt in the water for the additional benefits. Salt is a natural disinfectant, it helps suppress the growth of infectious microbes and promotes wound healing.

Antibiotics for ear piercing infection

Other than self-care at home and application of few home remedies on the wound site, sometimes the infection demands further intervention like topical medication. If you notice that the severity of infection is not reducing over time, consider using over the counter topical antibiotics for infection control.

There are several types of medications available in the market for topical use like topical antimicrobial ointments containing neomycin.

Before applying any topical agent on the wound site, clean the area properly, let it dry completely and then apply the medication. Rub it gently on the piercing site to get it absorbed a little bit.

Repeat the application of topical antimicrobial agent 2 to 3 times a day for a few days to eliminate the bacterial population completely.

Always remember to wash your hands afterwards.

Unfortunately, once an ear piercing gets infected, prompt and specific measures need to be taken to control the spread as well as to eliminate it. By now, you already know what you need to do to decrease or suppress the infection.

But the question arises, what measures you need to take to prevent the piercing from getting infected in the first place. Usually, the person in charge of piercing or piercer will give you instructions regarding post piercing, follow them carefully. However, in otherwise situation, all the preventive measures are enlisted below:

  • Keep the piercing dry. When you take a bath or even clean the piercing, dry it with cotton bud or tissue.
  • Don't touch the piercing with dirty or unwashed hand. If you feel like your hand is dirty wash your hands before touching the ear piercing for any cause.
  • Don't touch the ear piercing unnecessarily. Picking and scratching the wound site should be avoided as this could become the cause of infection. An infected ear piercing is a tedious job to manage and takes a longer time to heal
  • While taking a bath, use an antibacterial soap to wash the piercing site
  • Avoid swimming with an open wound like ear piercing.
  • If your wound is clean, don't use antiseptics, skin disinfectants, alcohol-containing cleaning solutions, tea tree oil skin cleansers. All of these can dry out the ear-piercing wound, which would eventually take a longer time to heal than usual. Avoid sharing jewellery with your friends.
  • Keep wearing earrings for at least 6 weeks even at night time. As removing earrings too early will make the piercing to close, reattempting to wear earrings can cause injury to the piercing site creating an entirely new wound which may then get infected easily.
  • Gently twist the earrings a few times a day. This will ensure that the piercing doesn’t close around the earring, though it might not happen anyway.

While self-treatment usually takes care of most ear piercing infections, it is always best to know when it is not enough. Certain conditions need medical advice and delaying treatment can cause serious consequences. Consult a doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms: Infection is not reducing even after two days of home care

  • Rising fever
  • Continuous pus discharge
  • Swelling spreading day by day
  • Bleeding from the piercing site

A doctor might help drain pus from the piercing site, which is necessary for infection control. He/ she may also prescribe some antibiotics or topical ointments to stop the infection from spreading to other sites. In severe cases of cartilage infection, there might be a need to remove the infected cartilage.

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References

  1. The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne [internet]: Victoria State Government. Piercings
  2. Laura M Koenig, MD and Molly Carnes, MD. Body Piercing. J Gen Intern Med. PMID: 10354260
  3. American Academy of Family Physicians [Internet]. Leawood (KS); Body Piercing
  4. Irina Negut, Valentina Grumezescu, and Alexandru Mihai Grumezescu. Treatment Strategies for Infected Wounds. Molecules. 2018 Sep. PMID: 30231567
  5. The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne [internet]: Victoria State Government. Wounds - how to care for them
  6. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); What are the treatment options for chronic wounds?
  7. Leise BS. Topical Wound Medications.. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2018 Dec. PMID: 30447767
  8. Medline plus [internet]: US National Library of Medicine; Neomycin Topical
  9. Queensland Health. Government of Queensland, Australia; Body Piercing - So you are thinking of getting a piercing
  10. American Academy of Dermatology. Rosemont (IL), US; Caring for pierced ears
  11. National Health Service [internet]. UK; Body piercing