Six months after piercing, how can I get rid of this bump on my ear?
April 14, 2008 11:16 AM   Subscribe

Six months ago I got the cartilage of my ear pierced, about half an inch down from the top. Ever since, I’ve had a small red bump on the exit hole of the piercing. It varies in size almost daily, is somewhat tender-feeling, and produces some white crud overnight. I soak it regularly but it doesn’t seem to help. Please help me de-bumpify myself!

I had the piercing done at a reputable shop with a needle and, what I was led to believe, a high quality surgical steel barbell. I soak it in a sea salt and warm water mixture once a day (most days) and spray it with a similar mixture once or twice a day as well.

It doesn’t hurt all the time, but it makes the top third or so of my ear feel pretty tender, especially when I hold the phone up to my ear or wake up after sleeping on it. Overnight and sometimes during the day the piercing will produce some crusty white stuff, which I clean off with a Q-tip and warm water. It isn’t nearly as bad as what’s described in this post, but I’m worried that a worse infection could develop if it continues.

Is this something that will go away given more time? Is there something else that I should be doing to get rid of the bump? I heard from a friend that Tea Tree Oil can help make such a thing go away, but I’m reluctant to introduce anything new for fear of making it worse.
posted by crosbyh to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Eh, it happens with piercings. I don't think it has anything to do with the quality of the piercing or the barbell, although your piercing could be irritated by an allergy to the stainless. You can always try a titanium barbell to see if that helps.

Sometimes with regular hot saline soaks the bump will go away. Sometimes you just need to abandon the piercing and let it heal. You can always repierce. If it doesn't improve and you don't remove the jewelry it will leave a nasty scar-ball on the back of your ear.

I think the best thing is go see your piercer and see what they think. If you need to take the barbell out and let it heal I bet the piercer will repierce it for free or for a discouted rate.
posted by robinpME at 11:23 AM on April 14, 2008

Also (and I'm sure you know this) only touch it when necessary and with clean hands. It's easy to keep touching that kind of thing, and that really only makes it worse.
posted by robinpME at 11:25 AM on April 14, 2008

In October, I got my conch pierced at 12g at a reputable shop, using appropriate jewelry. Two weeks later, a similar bump developed and stayed there despite everything I tried, until I stopped sleeping on it while I spent two nights on a friend's floor in late February. When I woke up the second day, bump was gone. GONE. And this thing had been huge straight up until the time it vanished.

I'm convinced that not sleeping on a healing piercing makes all the difference in the world.
posted by lizzicide at 11:35 AM on April 14, 2008

I got the same thing on one of my 4. At first I was scared it was a keloid, but then I realized it wasn't. What I did to mine was to squeeze the hell out of it like a pimple and make it pop. It's fully of pus. Then wash it with SALINE, not the crap that they give you in the ear piercing pagoda place. You can make your own saline, or you can buy generic contact lens rinse.

Make sure you're cleaning your ear like daily for the first 12 weeks or so...and if you've got no luck after about 4 weeks, then consider trying a different metal.

If you're using steel now---change it now.
posted by TomMelee at 11:35 AM on April 14, 2008

I'd suggest turning to the folks at BME (NSFW maybe?) for advice.

I had a similar thing happen with a cartiledge piercing. It slowly grew and I eventually removed the piercing, but it just kept growing. The problem was not infection, it was a type of explosive scarring called a "keloid".

My "ear baby" grew to be the size of a small marble on EACH side of my ear (so, two marbles). Eventually I had it surgically removed in a quick and painless procedure. 5 or so years later, it has not reoccured, but the doctor said that was always a possibility.

I also have two lobe piercings which also developed very small keloids. They receded to a nice stable size of barely noticable. The only thing I can do is never re-injure my ears (no stretching, no more holes) and the jewelry I wear hides it very well. This appears to just be how my ears scar. Live and learn!

- so, research both infection AND scarring, especially keloids or other types of "explosive" scarring.

- Go see your piercer. If you are unhappy with them, go see another piercer.

- in my experience, condoments such as tea tree oil and the like are not helpful. Salt soaks are really the only thing for cleanliness.
posted by utsutsu at 11:42 AM on April 14, 2008

It sounds like you've got an infection: washing the area with hydrogen peroxide at least twice a day should help.
posted by Carol Anne at 11:44 AM on April 14, 2008

Could it be hypertrophic scarring?

I have had this happen to me on every single ear cartilage piercing I have ever had and have never found a reliable way to get rid of it when it happens. On a couple of occasions the leave it the hell alone method (eventually) worked and when the piercing healed, the bump disappeared. On the majority of occasions however the damn thing just wouldn't shift and I've ended up retiring the piercing because of it.

It's a common occurrence though and everyone I know with piercings have had this at some point or another. Things that have worked for them include soaking in warm saline solution (which you probably should be doing anyway to keep it clean), tea tree or lavender oil, chamomile tea bag compresses and switching to PTFE or bioflex jewellery, though I've never had any luck with them.

If you're worried though, see your piercer. That's what they're there for.

(Please don't go anywhere near your body with hydrogen peroxide for any reason ever; it really doesn't sound like an infection to me but if it was, what you'd be wanting for that is saline and/or antibiotics, not a topical acid.)
posted by Acarpous at 11:50 AM on April 14, 2008

As usually happens with body-modification questions on AskMe, you've gotten some good advice and some not-so-good advice.

Have you gone back to the piercing place to ask their advice yet? It's probably worth doing, especially since it seems like you might not be super-experienced with this kind of stuff.
posted by box at 11:54 AM on April 14, 2008

I'm not an expert but I did a lot of research before getting my cartilage piercings, and two of the things that I read repeatedly is that a) you should most definitely not squeeze it like a pimple (anecdote above notwithstanding, odds are that you'll only exacerbate the problem in a pretty major way) and that b) hydrogen peroxide is likely to dry that sucker out, again not exactly a good thing. Again, this is just based on what I've read, I'm not a piercing professional but I did get a little obsessive about reading up on piercing do's and don'ts before getting my first so hopefully I can be of help in passing those two tidbits along. One other thing: the saline spray you're using - are you rinsing that off afterwards? Because if you don't, you might just be making matters worse by introducing yet another thing that might just be drying things out more than they should be.

As to what to do, I'd agree with robinME that you'd do well to go back to your piercer to get them to look at it and give you advice (assuming you're comfortable with your piercer - otherwise, see if you can find a reputable one in your area that will look at it), and in the meantime keep up those sea salt soakings (making sure to rinse the salt water off afterwards), and perhaps do contact folks at BME as utsutsu suggests. As for tea tree oil, I've had some success by introducing 1-2 drops of it into my sea salt soakings before, but again that's just anecdotal - I really think your best bet is to get some advice from your piercer if you can.
posted by zeph at 11:55 AM on April 14, 2008

Sounds like a keloid. I got them on my ears too. Your doctor can give you a small injection of steroid in the bump, which will make it go away. He/she may also prescribe a topical steroid. It has nothing to do with the quality of the piercing, or your care of it, some bodies just make these kind of scars.
posted by jrichards at 11:57 AM on April 14, 2008

As others have said, no no no no to peroxide or squeezing. Go to the piercer to see if you're rejecting the piercing, or if you're just still in the healing process. FWIW, I had a smallish lump on the back of mine even about a year after I took the piercing out. This type of piercing can take a year to heal, and I'm convinced that the less I messed with it (sleeping on it, holding a phone to it, even cleaning) after the initial healing stage where I cleaned it once a day, the better it was. Ask your piercer if you can stop cleaning it.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:24 PM on April 14, 2008

I have four cartilage piercings, and I had the same thing happen to two of them. I found that replacing the jewelry I was wearing (captured bead) with something that I could remove and clean (posts or talons held in place with o-rings) daily helped. After being able to easily wash my ears and the jewelry for a month the bumps all but disappeared.
posted by lekvar at 12:46 PM on April 14, 2008

I worked at a busy piercing shop for more than a year. If you drop me a MeMail, I'd be glad to pass along the piercers' contact info. They're great folks.

In my experience, cartilage piercings are notoriously cranky. They can take upwards of a year to heal, depending on the person and the placement, even when pierced by a consummate professional. Rest assured that your experience is not out of the ordinary, crosbyh.

The white, crusty discharge is most likely lymph, not pus from an infection. If the piercing were infected, it would be very warm to the touch, and very, very painful. The discharge would be yellow, green, or brown. To clear up the infection, you'd need to go to the doctor ASAP and get a prescription antibiotic. Lymph, on the other hand, is a normal product of a healing piercing. You're right to give it the warm-water-and-Q-tip treatment.

The scar tissue is most likely hypertrophic scarring, which is much, much more common--and less permanent!--than keloiding. Keloids are rare and usually associated with darker skin (particularly African American skin). Most likely, you'd have already keloided from another injury.

Hypertrophic scarring, on the other hand, is almost expected with cartilage piercings such as the helix and nostril. They're often caused by too much movement in the fistula--so if you've been turning and twisting the jewelry to "clean" it, please stop. It causes the tender tissue more trauma. Simply sleeping on the piercing, holding it against the phone, or bumping it with earphones can cause problems, too. Try as hard as you can not to touch or bump the piercing unless you've got immaculate hands, and, again, don't twist the jewelry.

Your aftercare sounds very good, with the daily salt soaks and saline sprays. Keep the good aftercare up until the problems stop. (No peroxide, Neosporin, or rubbing alcohol!) After six months, you'll probably be fine to change the jewelry--but only once until the problems stop, to something lighter (like titanium) and less likely to get bumped (like a shorter barbell or a small CBR). Expect there to be a bit of a flareup after a jewelry change, though.

To immediately address the scarring, you have several options. I used to make a paste of sea salt (not table salt, not epsom salt) and put that on my nostril bump. It'd draw out some of the trapped lymph and make the bump less noticeable. As mentioned by your friend, as well as the hypertrophic scarring article, many people use tea tree oil. Some people also use chamomile tea bag compresses. I'd recommend you choose one method and stick with it for a while; you should see results within two weeks.

You should always feel comfortable calling your piercer with concerns about healing or aftercare. They'll know what jewelry they used and if your anatomy has any quirks that would cause particular difficulties.

Otherwise, healing a cartilage piercing is a waiting game. I wish you luck. : )
posted by kwaller at 1:42 PM on April 14, 2008 [6 favorites]

stop sleeping on it
stop using the phone on that ear
do not squeeze the thing
do not use alcohol or hydrogen peroxide or anything but sea salt soak. make sure it's sea salt and not some other crap
if it's a big hoop or a bar that sticks out a lot, downsize so that it doesn't get bumped as much.
if you have long hair, keep it pulled back until the ear heals
cartiledge is a bitch to heal and takes a lot of toc to heal properly
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:51 PM on April 14, 2008

I got mine done in June 2007 at the piercing tattoo place in Phoenix. I would call it almost healed. It'll be 11 months to come full circle from unpierced to smooth skin with a ring in it.

I wouldn't put anything on it besides saline and Dial. I was told to use sea salt and hot water soaks, H20cean, and the plainest soap available.

Talk to your piercer. I've gone back to mine a handfull of times for "check ups."

I did start developing a bump, he was able to give me special soap they use to dry it out and it went away.

If I'd know how much of a pain in the ass this piercing was going to be, I would have skipped it.
posted by phritosan at 2:20 PM on April 14, 2008

kwaller has the right answer basically. Hypertrophic scar tissue is the most common problem that this could be, although it could also be a boil. Peroxide & alcohol won't do much of anything for hypertrophic scar tissue but have been known to clear up boils.
If it is hypertrophic scar tissue, you can also try rubbing in wheat germ oil or vitamin-E ointment (or a wheat germ oil concoction with Vitamin-E added that many health food stores carry). Another thing that sometimes works is changing to smaller jewelry. If it's a 14ga barbell, that would mean switching to a 16ga, 18ga, or even 20ga if you can find it. If the barbell is considerably longer than you need, you could switch to a shorter one (just long enough to leave a few millimeters of stem outside the ear).

If you can't figure out on your own what you've got, you could visit a local member of the APP.
posted by Martin E. at 2:51 PM on April 14, 2008

I recommend tea tree oil.
I had the same thing on my nose piercing for about two months. I soaked it everyday with sea salt and hot water.
It didn't go away until I used tea tree oil. It took about two weeks to get rid of it completely but it never came back.
posted by ad4pt at 7:27 PM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

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