Infected Ear Piercing

Overview

What is an infected ear piercing?

An ear piercing is a hole through your earlobe or the cartilage in your middle or upper ear. An infected ear piercing may be red, swollen, sore, warm, itchy or tender. Sometimes the piercing oozes blood or white, yellow or greenish pus.

A new piercing is an open wound that can take several weeks to fully heal. During that time, any bacteria (germs) that enter the wound can lead to infection.

How common are infected ear piercings?

Millions of people get their ears (and other body parts) pierced, and most of them have no serious complications. Mild irritation and infections are common, however, for new piercings. In most cases, infections aren’t serious and clear up quickly.

The earlobes are fleshy and fatty, with strong blood flow. They heal quickly, reducing the risk of an earlobe infection. The upper ear is cartilage, a thick, stiff tissue with less blood flow.

Piercings in the upper ear are more likely to become infected, and infections in the upper ear are sometimes serious.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes infected ear piercings?

If bacteria gets into a new piercing, it can lead to infection. You may expose your new piercing to harmful bacteria by:

  • Getting your ears pierced in an unhygienic environment or with unsterilized equipment.
  • Touching your ears with dirty hands.
  • Removing your earrings before the piercing heals.
  • Neglecting to clean your new piercings daily.
  • Swimming or submerging your head in a pool, hot tub, lake or river before your piercings fully heal.

What are the symptoms of infected ear piercings?

Some pain and redness are part of the normal healing process for pierced ears. It can be easy to confuse those with signs of infection. Symptoms that may indicate an infection include:

  • Discharge coming out of the piercing.
  • Fever.
  • Redness, warmth or swelling around the piercing.
  • Tenderness in the pierced earlobe or cartilage.

What are the complications of infected ear piercings?

Leaving an infected piercing untreated can result in a more severe infection or an abscess (a swollen area filled with pus). Upper ear piercings are more likely to get infected. Left untreated, these infections can spread into your body (called a systemic infection).

In some cases, an infection can cause your piercing to close up.

Diagnosis and Tests

How are infected ear piercings diagnosed?

If you see signs of an infected cartilage piercing, you should contact your healthcare provider. Your provider can assess the severity of the infection.

If you suspect an infection in an earlobe piercing, take special care with hygiene. If the infection worsens, contact your healthcare provider.

Management and Treatment

How are infected ear piercings treated?

Your healthcare provider may recommend a variety of treatments to help an infected ear piercing heal. These may include:

  • Applying a warm compress to the infected earlobe or cartilage.
  • Rinsing the infected earlobe with sterile saline.
  • Using antibiotic ointment on the affected area.
  • Taking oral antibiotics for more severe infections.

Prevention

How can I prevent a pierced ear infection?

Taking good care of your piercings is key to preventing infection. You should:

  • Leave your earrings in day and night until the piercings fully heal.
  • Wash your hands before touching your earlobes or cartilage.
  • Wash the piercing twice daily with a mild soap or cleanser.
  • Apply rubbing alcohol and/or antibiotic ointment to the area twice daily.
  • Gently rotate the earrings daily after applying antibiotic ointment or petroleum jelly to lubricate the piercing.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with infected pierced ears?

With good care, most infections clear up within a few days. If your infected ear piercing is not improving, you should see your healthcare provider.

Living With

When should I call the doctor?

You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:

  • Chills or fever.
  • Earring or earring clasp that won’t move or is embedded in your ear.
  • Swelling and pain in your earlobe or cartilage.
  • Yellow pus or discharge from the piercing.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

You may want to ask your healthcare provider:

  • How will I know when the infection has cleared?
  • When is it safe to remove my earrings?
  • Do I need to clean my earrings?
  • Can my ears get infected even after the piercing heals?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Getting your ears pierced is most often a safe, simple procedure. Be sure to go to an experienced piercer who practices proper hygiene procedures. Keep your new piercings clean, and don’t remove the earrings until the piercing has healed completely. Be patient — by preventing an infection now, you can enjoy your healthy piercing for years to come.

Reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional.

References

  • American Academy of Dermatology. Caring for Pierced Ears. (https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/skin-care-basics/tattoos/caring-for-pierced-ears) Accessed 4/2/2021.
  • American Family Physician. Complications of Body Piercing. (https://www.aafp.org/afp/2005/1115/p2029.html) Accessed 4/2/2021.
  • Family Doctor (from the American Academy of Family Physicians). Body Piercing. (https://familydoctor.org/body-piercing/) Accessed 4/2/2021.
  • Healthy Children (From the American Academy of Pediatrics). Avoiding Infection After Ear Piercing. (https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/ear-nose-throat/Pages/Avoiding-Infection-After-Ear-Piercing.aspx) Accessed 4/2/2021.
  • National Health Service (UK). Infected Piercings. (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/infected-piercings/) Accessed 4/2/2021.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy