What is a pierced ear infection?
You have a pierced ear infection when there is tenderness, a yellow discharge, redness, or some swelling around your earlobe.
The most common causes of infection are piercing the ears with unsterile equipment, inserting unsterile posts, or frequently touching the earlobes with dirty hands.
Another frequent cause is earrings that are too tight either because the post is too short (the thickness of earlobes varies) or the clasp is closed too tightly. Tight earrings don't allow air to enter the channel through the earlobe. Also, the pressure from tight earrings reduces blood flow to the earlobe and makes it more vulnerable to infection.
Some inexpensive earrings have rough areas on the posts that scratch the channel and can result in infection. Inserting the post at the wrong angle also can scratch the channel, so a mirror should be used until insertion becomes second nature. Posts containing nickel can also cause an itchy, allergic reaction.
How long does it last?
With proper care, most mild earlobe infections will clear up in 1 to 2 weeks. Infections keep coming back if you are not conscientious in ear and earring care.
How can I take care of myself?
If the ear is infected, clean both sides of the earlobe with rubbing alcohol. Remove the earring and post 3 times a day and cleanse them with rubbing alcohol. Apply an antibiotic ointment (a nonprescription item) to the post and reinsert it. Continue the antibiotic ointment for 2 days beyond the time the infection seems cleared. Carefully review and follow all the recommendations on preventing infections.
How can I prevent an infection?
Prevention of infections when ears are first pierced
- Do not pierce your ears if you have a tendency to bleed easily, form thick scars (keloids), or get staph skin infections.
- Have your earlobes pierced by someone who is experienced and understands sterile technique. Piercing by someone inexperienced can result in infections or a cosmetically poor result.
- The initial posts should be 14-carat gold or stainless steel.
- Do not remove the posts for 6 weeks.
- Apply the earring clasp loosely to allow for swelling.
- After washing your hands, clean both sides of the earlobes with an ear care antiseptic usually containing benzalkonium chloride (not rubbing alcohol which can interfere with healing). Then turn the posts approximately 3 rotations. Do this twice a day for the first 6 weeks.
- By the end of 6 weeks, the lining of the channels should be healed and your earrings may be changed as often as desired.
Prevention of later infections
- Do not touch your earrings except when inserting or removing them. Fingers are often dirty and can contaminate the area.
- Clean earrings, posts, and earlobes with rubbing alcohol before each insertion.
- Apply the clasps loosely to prevent any pressure on your earlobes and to provide an air space on both sides of each earlobe.
- Clean your cellphone and other phones that you use with disinfectant.
- Polish or discard any posts with rough spots.
- At bedtime, remove your earrings so that the channel is exposed to the air during the night.
Prevention of injury to the earlobe
Dangling earrings can lead to a torn earlobe requiring plastic surgery. Do not wear dangling earrings during sports. Also take precautions while dancing, hair washing, or handling young children who might yank your earrings.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Call IMMEDIATELY if:
- The earring clasp becomes embedded in the earlobe and can't be removed.
Call within 24 hours if:
- Swelling or redness spreads beyond the pierced area.
- You develop a fever (over 100°F, or 37.8°C).
- The infection is not improving after 48 hours of treatment.
- You have other concerns or questions.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Published by RelayHealth.
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