Girl getting her ear cleaned before receiving a piercing

Behavior & Development • Mar 30, 2015

You’re piercing what? Medical complications of cartilage and ear piercing

girl's ear with infected piercings in cartilage with earrings inIt was almost midnight when 14-year-old Kyla came to the emergency room with her mom and two friends– but they knew that infected ear cartilage could not wait until the morning.  Cartilage infections spread rapidly and can cause permanent disfigurement to the ear.  Her ear didn’t even look too bad– just a little red and sore where she had pierced it five days before. I’ve included a picture of her ear with the piercing studs still in place, and a picture of her ear after the earrings were removed and the piercings cleaned.  We didn’t realize how bad the infection was until the earrings were removed.

girl's ear with infected piercings after earrings have been removedKyla had done everything right. She had her upper ear cartilage pierced at a reputable jewelry store using sterile conditions and gold earrings.  She cleaned the piercings appropriately with antiseptic solution.  But five days later her cartilage piercings became infected, a medical emergency.

Even with meticulous care, cartilage piercings become infected about 30% of the time

One study followed a more than 450 nurses who pierced their ears.  About 30% of “high” ear piercings, or piercings of the cartilage of the pinna/upper ear, become infected. In comparison only about 20% of ear lobe piercings become infected.

The good news is that the treatment for infected piercings is simple when caught early. If there is no pus draining and no firm pocket of pus in the ear that needs to be drained (an abscess), infected ear cartilage can be treated with common oral antibiotics.  Most infected ear piercings are caused by a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and so you need an antibiotic that covers this bacteria, such as ciprofloxacin or levofloxacin.  Amoxcillin, Augmentin, and Keflex do not cover pseudomonas infections and are not the right drug to treat infected ear piercings.

Know when it’s an emergency

If there is pus draining from your pierced cartilage or an abscess in the ear, you may need to be admitted to the hospital for intravenous antibiotics and possible surgical drainage of the infection.  This is a medical emergency. Do not wait even a few hours. It can result in permanent loss of ear cartilage and a poor cosmetic outcome.

Other medical complications from high ear piercing/ear cartilage piercing include: allergic reactions to earrings, scarring and pull-through tears of the ear, and two medical conditions called pyogenic granuloma and keloid formation.

Avoid Nickel

Allergic reactions to earrings are common, especially in nickel earrings. Treatment for an allergic reaction is simple. Remove the earrings and replace with gold or nylon earrings.  Nylon (plastic) studs are inexpensive and rarely cause allergic reactions.  For about ten dollars you can buy a whole selection of different colors from or most jewelry stores.

Earrings buried in the ear lobe or ear cartilage present to my pediatric emergency room all the time.  I’ve seen patients who fell on their ears, got hit in the ear with a ball, had their earring pulled through their ear by a teammate or toddler. When pushed too tightly, earring backs can sometimes embed themselves in the ear. Even without infection, these injuries still need medical treatment. It usually involves removing the earring parts with surgical instruments and then treating the wound that remains.  Some sports leagues have started a no-earring requirement to prevent these injuries.

A lump can appear around a new piercing

Pyogenic granuloma is a medical complication of piercing causing a red or flesh-colored lump near or around the piercing. This can occur from an overgrowth of tissue during wound healing. Keloids are another medical complication of piercing that also results in a flesh-colored bump, usually at the site of the piercing.  Specialized treatment from a plastic surgeon or ENT specialist is usually necessary for both of these conditions.

back of girl's ear with infected piercings after earrings were removed

As for Kyla, she was able to avoid surgical treatment because she caught it early enough. She came to the Emergency room late that night, giving up her plans with her friends. Although she had to remove her piercing studs for the infection to heal well, I am hopeful she will have minimal scarring and be able to re-pierce her ear after the infection resolves.


  1. This is total bull crap. Your peircing is supposed to ooze, it’s gonna get red and swollen, and hurt like crazy! You just put a hole in a part of your body that receives very little blood flow and therefore has a higher chance for infection without proper care.
    However, using HOT homade saline soaks for 10min and washing the peircing with antibacterial soap once a day should be the only “wash or treatment” given. The two are more effective then any antibiotic I received when my triple helix got an infection (probably from me touching it without remembering to scrub my hands first).
    Peircings of any kind go bad if you can’t or won’t take proper care of it, twist or play with it, swim (in anything) or bathe without immediately doing soap and soak afterwards. Most people just don’t get good advice or don’t do the proper research. Infections are preventable though, no matter the region of the body that they developed in.

  2. That’s not true at all. If you put a metal object into your body, your immune system will react. Some ooze is to be expected from a fistula.

    Signed, a lady with a well healed industrial that oozed like a bitch for 4 months.

  3. Anyone with piercings knows that it will be oozy for as long as it wants to be. Cartilage piercings especially will stay red and sore for a very long time. And most important of all, IF it’s infected then the last thing you want to do is to take the jewelry out! If that infection gets trapped inside then you are going to have even more trouble. Jewelry should only be removed from a healthy piercing.
    This article is 50% bull, and it is just another one of those ‘discouraging people to get pierced and tattooed’ things. Besides, it looks like Kyla there got pierced with a gun. Go to a professional that will pierce you with a needle and who will insert surgical steel grade jewelry.

  4. This article could use a little work on being more tolerant towards piercings. First, one should never use anything other than surgical grade stainless steel in a healing piercing. I disagree with the advice on using jewelry made of gold (metals like gold, silver, and nickel can cause irritation) or nylon/plastic (certainly never wear acrylic plastic jewelry, which easily holds bacteria!). I would not recommend using studs in a healing piercing, either; stick to barbells with balls on both ends and no flat post discs. Also, make sure the “reputable” shop you get pierced at does not use piercing guns; only autoclaved hollow piercing needles should be used.

    Fresh piercings will appear red and swollen for at least several weeks, and they often ooze a bit and form “crust”, which is lymphatic fluid and totally normal. Cartilage tends to take much longer to heal and will stay very tender for months, requiring daily cleaning with sterile saline solution. It is possible to heal, but you have to be patient and willing to deal with redness and irritation for a long time! Honestly, that girl’s piercing holes don’t look too terrible. As long as it’s not constantly bleeding and/or oozing green or yellow puss, the piercing is probably fine and you just need to give it time to heal. Cheers!

Comments are closed.