Plus, doctors explain what to do if you have one.
In a perfect world, you’d get your ears pierced and spend the rest of your life effortlessly rocking cute earrings. In reality? Sometimes piercings get infected, and—not gonna sugar-coat it—it can be really effing gross.
Luckily, infected ear piercings aren’t the norm and, if you get pierced at a reputable place and practice solid piercing after-care, you’re probably going to be just fine. Still, infected piercings can and do happen to good people. Whomp, whomp.
If you find your piercing looking or feeling a little...off, it can be hard to tell the difference between minor irritation and a full-blown infection. But Kenneth A. Kaplan, MD, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) with ENT and Allergy Associates in New Jersey, and Leila Mankarious, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, are here to clear things up that confusion and answer all the burning (and oozing, and swollen—kidding!) questions you have about infected ear piercings.
Plus, the 10 photos ahead (...sorry) can help you identify if you're indeed dealing with an infection.
How do ear piercings even get infected?
Anyone can get an infected ear piercing, but it usually happens due to one of two major reasons, Dr. Kaplan says: Either your piercing site wasn’t adequately sterilized before you were pierced, or you kinda-sorta-definitely didn’t take great care of it after you were pierced.
Touching your piercing a lot, while it's still a new, open wound, can also expose it to bacteria that can cause an infection.
Do only new ear piercings get infected?
If you’ve had pierced ears for eons, you’re not totally off the hook, but you are at a lowered risk of just randomly developing an infection. “Infections are most likely to occur during the first week following the piercing, but can arise later on,” Dr. Kaplan says.
But infection symptoms won't pop up the moment your piercing is exposed to bacteria. "Surprisingly, piercing infections do not typically happen until three to seven days after the initial piercing, sometimes more," Dr. Mankarious says. "Bacteria need time to proliferate."
What ear piercings are most likely to become infected?
There are so many options for spots on your ear you can pierce and, TBH, you can get an infection anywhere. That said, some spots are riskier than others. “Piercings that go through ear cartilage are much more likely to become infected and are more difficult to treat than infections through the ear lobe or the soft tissues just above the lobe,” Dr. Kaplan says.
Dr. Mankarious agrees. "Piercing infections are most likely to occur in areas where the blood supply is low and cartilage is notorious for a low blood supply," she explains. "Cartilage infections can be particularly dangerous just for that reason." In other words, it's difficult for antibodies and antibiotics to reach the infection site when it's in your cartilage, giving the infection the opportunity to take over.
How can I prevent an ear piercing infection?
A huge factor is choosing a piercing shop that’s sanitary. “In general, the more experience someone has in doing piercings—with a reputation for good results—the better the odds of a favorable outcome,” Dr. Kaplan says. Read reviews on the shop and on your piercer beforehand if you can find any. And if you go into a piercing shop and it seems like it’s not clean or you just don’t get a good vibe, go someplace else. The spot on your ear that you choose to pierce matters, too. “No physician will ever recommend piercing the cartilage of the ear,” Dr. Kaplan says. Of course, that's never stopped anyone. That's why following your after-care instructions if so crucial, even after it seems like your piercing is all healed up. “Not strictly adhering to the post-piercing care instructions would increase the odds of infection,” Dr. Kaplan says.
So, what does a minor ear piercing infection look like?
Dr. Kaplan says a minor ear piercing infection displays the following symptoms around the piercing site:
You can treat a minor infection at home. Dr. Kaplan recommends going back to the place where you got your piercing to have the area evaluated (provided, of course, the place is reputable). Places that do piercings see this kind of thing all the time and should be able to recommend next steps based on your situation.
In general, Dr. Kaplan says that they'll recommend cleaning the site at least three times a day with hydrogen peroxide or alcohol, and then applying a topical antibiotic ointment like Bacitracin, Neosporin, or Triple Ointment for at least a week. (You can use a cotton-tipped applicator for all of this, Dr. Mankarious says.)
What does a severe ear piercing infection look like?
A more major infection would have “severe" redness, pain, and tenderness, discharge, and major swelling, Dr. Kaplan says. “Even worse infections might have pus draining from the site, abscess formation, or the appearance of reddish soft tissue at the piercing site,” he says.
If the skin around your piercing becomes red and tender and you have a fever greater than 100.4 degrees, you may be dealing with cellulitis, a common and potentially serious bacterial skin infection.
Of course, you can also have an allergy to the hardware in your ear and that can look like an infection. But, unfortunately, it can be tough for non-doctors to figure out the difference, Dr. Mankarious says. "Professionals often think of allergies based on a history of allergies to metals as well as a lack of response to antibiotic treatment," she says. So if you're unsure, it's best to see a doc.
How can you treat an infected ear piercing?
If you think you need to see a doctor, it’s really best to see an ear, nose and throat specialist or plastic surgeon if you can, Dr, Kaplan says. You may need oral antibiotics and, if you have any abscesses, they’ll need to be drained (fun!).
If you have a major infection or it involves the cartilage of your ear, you’re probably going to need to remove the piercing. "The piercing site needs time to rest and for the immune system to calm down," Dr. Mankarious explains.
And really, as sucky as it is to remove a piercing you were psyched about, this isn’t something you want to mess with. “Failure to remove hardware in a timely manner could result in the need for hospitalization for intravenous antibiotics and/or surgical intervention for drainage of pus or to cut away the diseased, non-salvageable tissue, with a greater possibility of deformity as a result,” Dr. Kaplan says. So, yeah...you don’t want that.
That doesn't mean you have to live a piercing-free existence, though. "Getting an infection does not mean you cannot be re-pierced, it simply means that technique surrounding the cleaning or the metal used was inadequate for your needs," Dr. Mankarious says.
Most of the time, you can treat infections at home if you catch them early enough. But if your infection seems to be getting worse, isn’t clearing up, or you just have a bad feeling about it, don’t hesitate to see a doctor.