Ear Piercing
July 12, 2010 3:53 AM   Subscribe

Infected Ear Piercing: I've had an old ear lobe piercing with a small ring for over under a year now (5 months). Every so often (on average, once a month) it would swell and weep some pus or blood. This often goes away with a salt wash. Why does this keep reoccuring?

The ring is a stainless surgical steel and I've never had a piercing before. I think it might be because I'm sleeping on the ear with the piercing in.

How can this constant infection be remedied? Is this normal? Should I consider removing the piercing?
posted by ashaw to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure I understand your question (it's ambiguous as to whether the piercing is old, or it's one you've had re-done, or if just the earring is new, or what). However - I sleep in two pairs of earrings every night - one set of small studs and one set of small hoops - and have slept in three sets of earrings - and I've never, ever had this problem. You should speak to the person who performed your piercing (assuming it was done with a needle by a professional person, and not someone at Claire's). If it was not done by a professional person and this persists, then you should see a doctor. In fact, regardless, you should see a doctor.
posted by Medieval Maven at 4:04 AM on July 12, 2010

With some of my ear piercings, it has taken a year or so to heal them. These are cartilage, though and not lobe. You do a LOT of things with your ears that you don't even realize (especially sleeping, holding the phone, hair care products, etc), which is why I think it took so long for mine to heal.

That said, 5 months isn't that long for a piercing. How often are you sea salt soaking? (I am assuming that's what you mean when you say "salt wash.") The sea salt will actually draw out any infections and decrease healing time, so if you're only doing it when it flares up, I'm not sure you're getting at the heart of the problem.

As the person before me mentioned, you should talk to a piercer. If you had it done at Claire's or somewhere with a gun instead of a needle, please go to a normal piercer about it. I wouldn't necessarily call the doctor just yet, but definitely talk to a professional.
posted by itsacover at 4:14 AM on July 12, 2010

You need a gold earring. That's what is used on baby girls to prevent infections.
posted by uauage at 4:31 AM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is very likely a metal sensitivity/nickel allergy. I had the same issue for the better part of a decade, on the rare occasion I bothered with jewelry - color preference meant that I wore exclusively steel or silver, which contain the common allergen nickel. A switch to gold (plated) jewelry was the only remedy that caused them to stop weeping and being generally useless; the change was obvious and immediate.
posted by biggity at 4:33 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with biggity/uauage.

I have a similar sensitivity to you. I've had my ears pierced for over 5 years (meaning they are fully healed), but anytime I put non-gold earrings in, my piercing holes reopen, become very sore, and gets infected. I believe that I am allergic to metal. Even gold plated don't work. The gold soon wears off and the pain returns.

Also, I have been told by Piercers (p.s. I've had 6 piercings) not to use salt washes/hydrogen peroxide, because they dry out the piercing and aren't good for healing. I have been told to use a more grease-based product like Neosporin to deal with infections. I would recommend using an antibacterial soap and warm water to clean it. You can draw out pus using a warm damp clothe left on for about 10 minutes before doing the wash and Neosporin application. But your best bet is to change your metal over to gold.
posted by angelaas525 at 4:54 AM on July 12, 2010

I have a nickel allergy also, and that sounds like what my ears do if I cheap earrings. I've had my piercings for at least 5 years now, and they get inflamed and weepy if I wear the wrong type of metal. Rhodium plating is my best friend. :)

If you do have a sensitivity to nickel, be aware that white gold (in the USA) is typically alloyed with nickel. It may be alloyed with palladium if you live elsewhere. For most people, the amount of nickel in white gold is not enough to cause a problem, but there are always exceptions!
posted by WowLookStars at 4:57 AM on July 12, 2010

I have a nickel allergy and can only wear earrings for a day or so (24-48 hours) until my ears start to hurt and get sensitive. Depending on the level of your allergy, you may be able to do gold. I can only wear sterling silver without having any problems. Aside from speaking to the piercer, my personal home remedy has been tea tree oil. It stings a little, but it keeps the inflammation down for me.
posted by penguingrl at 5:04 AM on July 12, 2010

Another person here with nickel allergy. I've had my piercings for over 35 years but I had troubles on and off for the first 10 years or so. Small gold studs are the way to go for daily use and when the lobes are healed up you can wear your hoops, silver, or cheap earrings for short periods of time. I can wear whatever I want now and never have problems but aside from 24 k gold studs which I can wear for days on end, I seldom wear any while sleeping.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:24 AM on July 12, 2010

There are several reasons an old piercing can get irritated like this, but note that pus indicates an infection. I'm not too clear on your language about how old the piercing is and how long you've had the new jewelry in there, but here are some thoughts:

If you had an old piercing that you didn't put jewelry in for a long time, and you shoved this ring in, you may have torn the fistula, giving you a vector for that infection. You need to go to a piercer to get it looked at. It's even more likely that this is the case if your earlobe was originally pierced with a gun, which can leave almost-imperceptible ragged edges that catch on things.

Like the above posters said, you may have a metal allergy to your "surgical stainless steel." Depending on where you got it, it may not be all that reliable. If you like the look of silver, go for titanium.

Your sea salt regimen is fine for acute care if it works, but be sure not to make it too heavy on the salt, or, as an above poster noted, it can dry out your wound, making it more likely to tear again.

I think your best bet, in terms of a plan of action, is to go to a piercer with the earring in when you get the inflammation, and have the piercer take a look. He or she may recommend new jewelry, snugger fitting jewelry (your ring may be like cheese-wire in a too-big piercing), removal of jewelry, or send you to a doctor. Do what your piercer says. I looked through your old questions and couldn't figure out where you live, if you can supply that information, I may be able to direct you to someone reputable.
posted by juniperesque at 5:26 AM on July 12, 2010

I have been told to use a more grease-based product like Neosporin to deal with infections.

Yeah, don't do that. When you have a puncture wound (a piercing), you don't want to seal out the air. In a healed, but irritated piercing it's less of an issue, but definitely don't smear grease on a fresh piercing, it needs to breathe!
posted by wrok at 6:21 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I got my ears pierced in the early '90's and stopped wearing earrings around 2000. My holes have never completely disappeared, and I still occasionally have this problem. It generally lasts for about 24 hours -- some swelling, liquid seeping, the earlobe gets red and itchy. Then it clears up. Maybe I should be more concerned about it, but I just leave it be or take an OTC anti-inflammatory if it's particularly bothersome.
posted by worldswalker at 7:10 AM on July 12, 2010

These are just my thoughts, not medical advice...

It could be that you're moving/tearing the piercing in your sleep. I don't have sensitivities to metal, but my ear piercings did what you describe during the first 6 months or so.

It stopped happening after that, but what worked for me during the occasional infection was to crush up a non-coated Tylenol tablet, mix it with a few drops of water until it forms a paste, and apply that to the infected area and leave it overnight. I usually secured the blob of paste with a bandaid and washed it all out in the shower the next morning.

Maybe that would work better than a salt wash.

And yeah, Polysporin made my situation worse.
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:37 AM on July 12, 2010

Ditto what worldswalker said. I've had my ears pierced for almost 30 years but the 2nd hole in one of my ears has this problem periodically. It just randomly swells, itches and then drains (maybe once a month) and I don't even wear an earring in it. It's annoying but it's never lasted long enough for me to actually worry about it.

On a side note, I have to wear earrings all the time in my two standard piercings or they close up. Then I have to re-pierce them (myself) when I want to wear earrings again and they become VERY unhappy for a few days. My kingdom for a solution to this problem.

Anyway, I'm curious to hear the outcome so good luck getting it resolved.
posted by victoriab at 7:47 AM on July 12, 2010

One more with a nickel allergy - I now only wear titanium jewellery (I don't like gold), because my stainless surgical steel-wearing piercings always went through a cycle of infection/healing/infection. Now it's only when I'm really sick or manage to hit/pull the piercing that it flares up.

Please don't take your piercing out every night. The less you handle it, the better, and if the hole is healing overnight and you're then stretching it even slightly every day on reinsertion, you're going to be irritating the shit out of it. Dilute salt soaks, not too frequent, are a good plan too.

If you had it pierced by a piercer, I'd go talk to them too. Maybe different jewellery, as juniperesque suggests, might be an issue as well as the metal type - I have found curved barbells good for stubborn healing on non-lobe piercings, for example, but the diameter and gauge on a ring could make a big difference.
posted by carbide at 7:52 AM on July 12, 2010

It's definitely not caused by sleeping with them in. I've been doing that for well over 10 years without a problem. In fact, it's better to leave a new piercing in; pulling it out and in will only aggravate it, and even slow down the healing process. My votes for an allergy, get some gold or other non-allergenic earrings and adopt a religious (2x a day) rinsing with a sea-salt & warm water mixture. Turn them a couple times each time you rise, but after that, DO NOT PLAY WITH THEM. Treat them as a new piercing; do this for at least a month, or even 6-8 weeks. If you're still having problems after that, then you can reevaluate.
posted by cgg at 8:28 AM on July 12, 2010

re: metal allergy - I am have a pretty pronounced metal allergy, but it's not ever manifested with real surgical steel. I've never had *pus* from my metal allergy, and I've had this all my life, and I've worn cheap earrings a time or two (or more . .INADVISABLE). If you think it's a metal allergy, a good way to test it is to wear a cheap ring on your hand and if you turn green, there you go. You're allergic to nickle. The area may also just get red and itchy, but I, for one, tend to turn green. You can also try painting your earrings with clear nail polish. It will wear off, but again, if it the problem abates after you do this, metal allergy. Otherwise, I'm still super leery about weird recurring infections in my piercings. Get ye to the piercer and or to your doctor, depending on how disgusting it is / freaked out you are.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:24 AM on July 12, 2010

My ears just wouldn't tolerate a lobe piercing. (Cartilage was fine, weirdly.) I tried plastic posts, gold, painting over with clear nail polish, etc. No matter what I did or how clean I kept my piercings, my lobes were just not having it and would turn bright red and get pussy. My solution, sadly, was to just stop wearing earrings. No problems after that.
posted by Kimberly at 11:25 AM on July 12, 2010

I pierced my own earlobes about 45 years ago. After a few years I discovered I can only wear sterling or 18kt gold. I'm not into gold, sterling works for me.
posted by mareli at 1:20 PM on July 12, 2010

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