Why do my ear piercings continue to get irritated after 10 years?
September 30, 2009 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Almost ten years after I've worn earrings, my piercings continue to regularly swell and discharge pus. What's wrong with my ears, how can I fix it, and will I ever wear earrings again?

The (gross) backstory:

Each of my earlobes is pierced twice. Both were done with a gun rather than a needle (bad, I know); the first ones about 20 years ago and the second ones about 12 years ago. I used to use hydrogen peroxide to clean my piercings and earrings (I think that's also no longer recommended).

I no longer have any of the earrings I used to wear, but they were all fairly inexpensive, and were probably made of a variety of metals that are usually used for cheap earrings.

About 10 years ago, my piercings suddenly started getting really irritated, no matter how often I changed/cleaned them. I gave up on wearing earrings for a while.

At one point, after I hadn't worn earrings for almost a year, I tried putting in my original piercing earrings (some fake gold ones with extra-pointy posts); my earlobes were red and swollen within 15 minutes, and it took several days to recover. I haven't attempted to wear earrings since.

A year or so later, I discovered one day that my earlobe was swollen and itchy. I pressed on it from behind and discharged pus through one of the piercing holes -- like popping a zit. It relieved the pressure and pain. In the years since, my piercings have intermittently become irritated in this way, and I can usually "pop" whichever one is irritated and discharge white pus (although sometimes a hole can be irritated but doesn't want to "pop"). Blood never comes out of the holes.

All four holes are susceptible, although it seems that my right side is irritated more often (however, the top hole on the right side is irritated right now, so maybe I'm biased). I estimate that at least one hole becomes irritated every two to four weeks, although I admit I've never kept track. The irritation usually lasts a couple of days.

Obviously, since this has been happening for many years, it has gone on as I've had many different hairstyles, used different hair products, slept on different pillowcases, lived in different apartments, and even lived on different continents. I don't have any medical conditions or allergies that I know of.

My questions:

What the hell would make really old piercings randomly, but regularly, irritated? Is there anything I can do to prevent the irritation? I'd really like to wear earrings again, and I'm willing to wear metals that are better for sensitive ears (stainless steel?), but I'm reluctant to experiment because of the cost of earrings and the pain that's involved.

(Anonymous because I really don't want my coworkers to know about my gross ears...)
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (45 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have you ever had a doctor look at them? I'd wonder if there wasn't something stuck in them (a flake of metal plating or something.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:44 AM on September 30, 2009

Sounds like you're at least mildly allergic to a metal in the earrings. Check out earrings from places like Simply Whispers or Silverflake. From what I gather, nickel is usually the issue for some folks, but it could be silver or gold (less likely). Start with stuff from Simply Whispers, which is marketed expressly for people who need hypoallergenic jewelry.
posted by jdfan at 8:49 AM on September 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

I paint the backs of my cheap (hell, I can't afford any nice earrings, so they're all cheap) earrings with clear nail polish and this seems to help as a barrier between my ears and cheap metal. However, IANAD and this could irritate sensitive skin/an infection even more.
posted by ShadePlant at 8:49 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would have them repierced by a professional piercer with a needle and NOT a gun. I had 3 piercings done 22 years ago (2 with a gun, one myself with a needle). the 2 gun piercings were just like yours until I had them repierced with needles about 6 years ago. Now, none of my piercings ever get infected and gross.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:50 AM on September 30, 2009

Don't sleep with your earrings in, first of all.

Second of all, I definitely second the repiercing by a piercer advice.

Third of all, you need to wear metals you're not allergic to. This may mean that you only have one set of earrings rather than lots of fun cheap earrings, but one set of earrings in healthy ears is much more attractive than cheap fun earrings in pus farms.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:00 AM on September 30, 2009

Unless I'm misunderstanding anonymous -- she hasn't worn any earrings in 10 years, and this is happening anyway. It has nothing to do with a current reaction to metal in the earrings.
posted by brainmouse at 9:02 AM on September 30, 2009 [6 favorites]

Sounds like a nickel allergy. I'm most sensitive to it in my ears (very similar symptoms) but my neck can also get a super irritating reaction from chains and pendants. I had to throw out some jeans, because the buttons touching my skin tested positive for nickel - I was wondering for weeks why I was suddenly getting rashes in the same spot.

The thing with nickel allergies is that they can get more severe with more exposure. It can start with a mild irritation one day, then grow into what you're experiencing in a few years if the nickel isn't removed.

Get surgical steel, sterling silver, or other hyper-allergenic jewelry, along with a nickel testing kit. Then if the symptoms don't begin to go away, ask a dioctor if there's something more serious.
posted by Tequila Mockingbird at 9:05 AM on September 30, 2009

That sounds like how my ear piercings all were - two in each ear, done with a gun, all horrifically sensitive. Eventually I just relied upon ultra-sensitive earrings and never changed them.

However (and here begins the ancedotal evidence), I got an industrial piercing done a few years back, with a needle, and since then, I haver never had problems with any of my piercings, no matter what earrings I wear.
posted by Lucinda at 9:06 AM on September 30, 2009

Hypo0allergenic, jeez. (Am I getting that right..?)

And no, the post doesn't say these reactions happen when no earrings are worn. It's the metal.
posted by Tequila Mockingbird at 9:07 AM on September 30, 2009

At one point, after I hadn't worn earrings for almost a year, I tried putting in my original piercing earrings (some fake gold ones with extra-pointy posts); my earlobes were red and swollen within 15 minutes, and it took several days to recover. I haven't attempted to wear earrings since.

A year or so later, I discovered one day that my earlobe was swollen and itchy.

She's getting this reaction a year after she last tried to put earrings in.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:10 AM on September 30, 2009

I haven't attempted to wear earrings since [...] A year or so later, I discovered one day that my earlobe was swollen and itchy"

These reactions have been happening when no earrings have been worn for years.
posted by moira at 9:13 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

You have some sort of recurring infection. Consult a doctor. The ear has a complex structure that makes it uniquely vulnerable to damage from some types of infection.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:16 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try soaking the lobes in a mixture of water and sea salt. Do this ~2x a day for a week. That should clear up the fussiness. As for it happening over and over, you may have grit or old 'gold' flakes from the cheap earrings. It might be stuck in the scar tissue from the gun trauma. I'd recommend getting them re-pierced by an experienced piercer using a needle.
posted by caveat at 9:22 AM on September 30, 2009

Oh I'd also say to check out a doctor before getting them re-pierced - that can cause the infection to spread, which nobody wants. That was kind of a KEY point I managed to leave out.

Soak ears
See doc
Get re-pierced with needle.
posted by caveat at 9:28 AM on September 30, 2009

Sounds like a gross bacteria thing to me, maybe something that invaded the hole.

In any case you can probably do an at-home salt water soak a few times a day for relief, or dab some iodine around the area (it could hurt the pants off you, but that's how they disinfect for surgeries). If you're anything like me and hate going to the doctor when it's something that might get better at home I'd try the DIY treatments for a few days at least.
posted by problemcat at 9:29 AM on September 30, 2009

Allergy to earrings is normally contact dermatitis; however some things make me think that this isn't what you've got. Firstly, contact dermatitis is what's called a 'delayed hypersensitivity' reaction, meaning that it normally takes a couple of days for the reaction to show up, but you talk about getting reactions within fifteen minutes of putting earrings in. Secondly, you talk about having this reaction after not having earrings in for over a year, and can't see a pattern in exposure to anything else that fits your ear flare ups.

The pus sounds like an infection. What it may be is that your piercing holes haven't healed for some reason, which means that you get recurring infections in them. restless_nomad's suggestion that there may be flakes of metal in them, preventing full healing is a possibility. Do other wounds heal normally? If you've had problems with it taking ages for say, a cut on your hand from cooking, to heal then you might have a problem with wound healing in general (there are a number of medical conditions that can cause this).

All in all, I think that taking yourself to your doctor is probably the best bet. Really stress to the doctor how long ago your piercings were done - they're used to people coming along with infected ears a short time after a new piercing, but you want to emphasise that this is long term and recurring.
posted by Coobeastie at 9:30 AM on September 30, 2009

Apologies for the hijack, but where does one locate a professional needle piercer? Is that typically done at body piercing/tattoo parlors?
posted by Zoyashka at 9:30 AM on September 30, 2009

You can develop new allergies as you age, and it sounds like maybe you developed an allergy to some metals and would have to wear sterling silver earrings in the future.

I let my piercings grow back together ~20 years ago and I still get occasional pus-like stuff in the holes. I think once you have a hole, gunk can accumulate in the hole and cause irritation and a reaction. So you might actually have fewer problems if you started wearing hypoallergenic sterling silver earrings because there wouldn't be that empty hole for gunk to get in.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:34 AM on September 30, 2009

Zoyashka: yes.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 9:38 AM on September 30, 2009

hypoallergenic sterling silver earrings

Sterling silver is not hypoallergenic for many people, because it's 7.5% nickel (that's what the "925 Sterling" means--it's 925 parts out of a thousand silver, but the other 75 parts are nickel).

Thanks, restless_nomad for the correction about whether she was currently wearing earrings or not.

So, yeah, OP, if your lobes are oozing pus and you haven't stuck anything in them for a year or more, hie thee to a dermatologist and get some prescription cream for said lobes--either a steroidy cream or an antibioticky cream.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:45 AM on September 30, 2009

I know exactly what you mean OP. Even when I leave the holes in my ears without earrings for years at a time I get the same buildup of white discharge from time to time. It's kind of harder than pus right and smells bad if you sniff it? The way I avoid it is to soap up my earlobes when I wash my hair and give them a good hard rub between my fingers. I think it just keeps everything moving in there and prevents the buildup getting out of hand. I've had it on and off for 20 years plus so I doubt it's anything too life threatening.

I can also only wear silver or gold in my ears or I get the same mad irritation as you in a matter of minutes.
posted by merocet at 9:46 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Same as merocet, sterling silver and gold, except they have to be 18k gold, get almost instant reaction to anything else.
posted by mareli at 9:49 AM on September 30, 2009

1. Clean ears.
2. See doctor to check for recurring infection. Clear it up.
3. Once clear (or as clearing) wear PLASTIC earrings and practice good cleaning hygiene daily with the earrings (in or out at night, as doctor advises) until your holes heal. They won't seal, but they will heal.

I totally could have written this OP many years ago, and that is what I did to clear it up. The plastic earrings that could withstand cleaning solutions was crucial - not plastic sleeves over current earrings. I actually simply bought a card of about 30 pair of kid earrings at a store like Claire's and wore them for a couple of days while maintaining the "back to health" routine until the holes finally healed.
posted by tilde at 9:50 AM on September 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Edit wore a pair of earrings for a couple of days, tossed them, put in new, wore a couple of days, rinse and repeat ...
posted by tilde at 9:52 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, gun piercings cause trouble. Crappy jewelry causes trouble. Sounds like it's basically just normal dead skin/hair oil/hair product buildup getting in there and not being expelled properly, thus the irritation.

Your long term solution is to find a good piercer and go from there.

If you want to just address the immediate symptoms, warm salt-water soaks are great. IIRC the recommended ratio is 1/4 tsp per 8 oz. of water. I used to make a batch, pour some into a shot glass and let my ears rest in the glass till the water cooled off. Do a session every day. And don't play with the piercings!
posted by Ultra Laser at 9:52 AM on September 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

It seems that many of you know something that might be useful for those of us who are ignorant: why is a modern piercing gun worse than a needle? I had my children and myself done at Claire's, and because the gun nowadays actually uses the earring back as the piercing agent, it seemed sterile. I apologize if this derails the thread, but maybe this isn't common knowledge. Thanks.
posted by keener_sounds at 10:08 AM on September 30, 2009

I had my children and myself done at Claire's, and because the gun nowadays actually uses the earring back as the piercing agent, it seemed sterile.

It's not specifically the sterility so much as the piercing itself. The earrings are not particularly sharp, and the bevel of the cut is quite short. It's akin to piercing your ear with a thumb tack. A professional piercing place (body piercing places always do earlobes as well) will use a sterile needle of a much longer length with a more acute bevel, much more like a doctor's hypodermic needle. This provides a much cleaner cut that heals quicker and with less chance of scarring.

As far as sterility goes, when I first got my ears pierced, I was struck by how much like a doctor's office the piercing room was. Cotton balls with antiseptic, latex gloves, the works. At Claire's, the gun they use can't even be properly sterilized (it's plastic) and you're being pierced by a 19-year-old being paid $9/hour.
posted by explosion at 10:19 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think a number of people are not reading the OP carefully. The OP does not wear earrings, and has not for many years. This is not a question about what to do to allow her to again wear earrings.

OP, I have also not worn earrings in oh, 15 years and yes, I do still occasionally get lobes swollen and irritated by an accumulation of gunk that needs to be squeezed out. It is, in my case, not pus but soap, shampoo and conditioner - the same stuff that builds up behind your ears and anywhere else you don't take special care with.

Solution: squeeze lobes to drain, squeeze again with hydrogen peroxide soaked cotton balls, leave. Wipe with HP for a few days, and repeat as needed.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:21 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

why is a modern piercing gun worse than a needle?

This rant pretty much covers it.

If you had your ears pierced at a Claire's by someone who sterilized the jewelry, wore a different pair of sterile gloves for each piercing, and who stored the piercing gun in a sterile environment, I want to know what Claire's that is. The above requirements are mandatory in my state for piercing shops, and the inspectors take them seriously.

Even setting aside the idea that the piercing gun is itself impossible to sterilize properly, the piercing environment at a mall store is pretty much the antithesis of a sterile field. You wouldn't go into a mall store to have someone lance a boil, would you?
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:24 AM on September 30, 2009

Ah. At Claire's they also use cotton balls with antiseptic and latex gloves, but (judging by the streams of little kids coming out of there with newly pierced ears) most people have never considered the bevel of the cut itself. Yuck. Thanks.
posted by keener_sounds at 10:26 AM on September 30, 2009

I have a theory. I used to have this trouble with my earring holes, until I started: (1) wearing only surgical steel or 14k gold; AND (2) cleaning my earrings with alcohol and putting them in a little wet to clean the hole; AND (3) occasionally coating an earring with neosporin and applying that to the interior of the piercing by putting the earring in the hole; AND (4) almost always wearing earrings.

Note that two commenters here have not worn earrings in their piercing holes for years, and have trouble with pus discharge. Possibly it's worse to give up on earrings entirely, because then the hole is still there, accumulating bacteria and allergens.

So my advice would be to find a way to get a hypoallergenic earring back in there (maybe via re-piercing, if necessary?), and then use the earring to deliver alcohol and antibacterial cream to the inside of the piercing now and then.
posted by palliser at 11:28 AM on September 30, 2009

A nickle allergy may have triggered a mild case of dyshidrotic eczema. Unfortunately there is currently no cure, but it sounds as if you are treating the symptoms successfully. Have you noticed if stress exacerbates the condition? Keep the area clean and dry at all times.
posted by Acacia at 11:28 AM on September 30, 2009

why is a modern piercing gun worse than a needle?

An easy experiment you can try in your home or office will show you exactly why piercing guns are vile horrid implements of doom:

Take a piece of paper, and punch a hole in it with a pen or pencil. Do you see the ragged edges of paper hanging out on the sides of the hole? This is, admittedly on a much larger scale, what a piercing gun does to your flesh.

Take that same piece of paper, and punch a hole in it using an actual hole puncher. Do you see how the edges of the hole are clean and uniform, with no raggedy bits hanging off the rim? This is, again on a much larger scale, what a hollow piercing needle does to your flesh. (Yes, I know the stabbity parts of a 3-hole punches aren't actually hollow. The end result is still the same for our experiment's purposes.)

Basically, piercing guns force the jewelry through your skin, creating a torn, ragged, easily irritated wound, while hollow piercing needles remove a thin core of flesh to make space for the jewelry, leaving a clean-edged hole. Which would you rather have?

I am neither a piercer nor a doctor of any sort, although I have been rather holey in the past.
posted by elizardbits at 11:44 AM on September 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

This happens to me as well (haven't worn earrings in about 8 years), and I find that the more I play with the ear -- tugging on it, squeezing it, scratching it -- the worst it gets.

Regarding it happening more on the right side... when you talk on the phone do you usually hold it up to your right ear? Does it come into contact with the piercings?
posted by pluckemin at 11:45 AM on September 30, 2009

Also, when it happens, I usually dip a cotton swab in some rubbing alcohol and rub it on the front and back of the piercing while stretching the ear lobe (so that a bit of the rubbing alcohol can get inside the piercing). It stings a little but it does seem to help it clear up.
posted by pluckemin at 11:47 AM on September 30, 2009

So my advice would be to find a way to get a hypoallergenic earring back in there (maybe via re-piercing, if necessary?)

Not advisable. If it's been years, it's scar tissue and stretching it with an earring of any guage will be very, very painful. Holes can also partially close and... you really want to avoid this scenario in my experience.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:19 PM on September 30, 2009

It happens to me when I leave my earrings out (4 on the left, 3 on the right). It's not quite pus, more solid, but comes out if you sort of zit-pop the holes, right? It doesn't cause any irritation for me, but it's a constant when i'm not wearing any earrings for any length of time.

I always just chalked it up to gunk getting in the holes. Hair goop, dead skin, skin oils, that sort of gunk. If there's anything in there that causes you irritation, then I can see it almost resembling a mild infection.

Personally, I'd just put SMALL good quality hypo allergenic hoops or studs in the holes, deal with the infection you might get with the earrings in (soak in sea-salt & warm water twice a day) and once everything's all cleared up, just leave the earrings be for a while, 24 hours a day. That's the state where my ears are happiest -- an earring in every hole, all the time, and a week or so on after the initial trauma of putting the earrings through has passed.

Obviously, this isn't medical advice, your mileage may vary, and for all I know your ears might blow up like balloons. It's just what works for *me*.
posted by cgg at 12:21 PM on September 30, 2009

I am 'allergic' to nickel and make sure the earrings I wear are "nickel free" if they're not real gold. If you ask at any store, they can direct you to the "nickel free" rack as it's pretty common.

Also, consider wearing wire earrings, or hoops - meaning ones without backs. I find the backs sometimes to be super irritating as they push up right against the back of my ear and my holes can't 'breathe'. I hope that makes sense.
posted by NoraCharles at 1:23 PM on September 30, 2009

Pus means you've got some sort of infection. Go see a doctor. Do not get repierced until you get it cleared up and the doc gives you and OK. The needle could push the local infection deeper into your body and that would be bad.
posted by chairface at 1:57 PM on September 30, 2009

Another vote for allergy. Try getting some plain gold earrings, or alternatively, surgical steel jewelry. Both are pretty hypoallergenic.

It sounds like you might be getting the allergy, and then infecting the contact-dermatitis through excessive handling, or maybe even just everyday activity. Make sure you're keeping your hair clean.
posted by sunshinesky at 2:33 PM on September 30, 2009

Another way to help heal any facial skin irritation or infection is to change your pillowcase and washcloth (if you use a washcloth) every day. This may be impracticable in the long run, but if you can do it in the short term it might help.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:36 PM on September 30, 2009

Anecdata: I got the same irritation as the OP whenever I wore certain earrings and it would take a day or two to subside, although no flare-ups if I hadn't worn earrings for a while. (But definitely got the gunk buildup several people have mentioned.) Some of the troublesome earrings were surgical stainless steel, too.

Turns out Type 304 surgical stainless steel, a common type, contains 8 - 10% nickel. Type 316 steel, another common type, also contains about 10% Ni. Nickel is usually the bad player in metal allergies, and people usually get more sensitive over time rather than building up a tolerance. So it's not too surprising to find some people are allergic to stainless steel, and if in doubt, try other alloys instead.

High-carat gold is fine for me but it's pricey, so I tried titanium. This is a biologically inert metal that's suitable for surgical implants and it's cheaper than gold. It's not a mainstream jewelry material yet, so I had to go to a piercing studio to find Ti earrings and the choice of styles is limited. I got the stud-type that people wear in their noses, meant to stay put for many days. I've had them in my ears continuously since June with only one flare-up that lasted a few hours, but simply washing my ear vigorously with soap and water, then alcohol, fixed it.

To summarize: I don't know why your empty ears are flaring up, but you may be more sensitive to nickel now than in the past so your old earrings may not work for you any more. Avoid stainless steel. Look into inert metals like gold, platinum, palladium etc if you can afford 'em, or titanium.
posted by Quietgal at 4:54 PM on September 30, 2009

Do you have acne? Many people with acne have problems with piercings.

(However, the level of irritation you describe sounds allergy-related.)
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:20 PM on September 30, 2009

I have a nickel allergy. I sometimes reacted to earrings (not always), but after not wearing earrings for a year and then going back to wearing earrings again, I had ears that could get infected pretty much instantly when I put earrings in. Like, you could have taken a video of the reaction happening, it was that fast.

I pretty much learned to (a) not wear the nickel earrings (I love niobium if you can find 'em, craft fairs usually, that rainbow metal) so much, but (b) get my ears used to wearing earrings again. I know it sounds crazy, but my ears apparently did have to get used to being decorated again in order to not freak out so much the second a post went through. The allergy is still there, but I don't nearly have the crazy reaction I used to any more.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:35 PM on September 30, 2009

I have a nickel/metal allergy. I often go periods without earrings. This happens to me also. However, the white discharge likely isn't pus, it's lymph. It's white and oozes kind of like pus, and pus is possible, but after some time, it's likely to be dried lymph fluid buildup in the old wound (the hole).

If you did want to wear earrings again, try niobium posts/wires. I'm sensitive to everything, often getting a reaction within a 1/2 hour-1 hr after putting in some alloy/silver/stainless steel earrings. But niobium has been safe for me. I've repierced my own ears (NOT recommended) several times because they got swollen, infected, and closed, but since I've started with the niobium, I can even go a while without earrings and preserve the holes.

I get mine at Etsy. Just go to jewelry and put "niobium" in the search box. Many earring makers will also be able to sub in niobium wires upon request.
posted by cmgonzalez at 7:58 AM on October 1, 2009

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