What to Know About Ear Piercing Infections

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 27, 2021
3 min read

While getting your ears pierced is pretty safe, there's still a chance that your piercings could become infected. An ear piercing is a fresh wound that needs to be treated as such. This means keeping it clean and letting it heal. If your piercing does become infected, you can most likely treat it from home.

When you first decide to get your ears pierced, make sure that you choose an experienced piercer that uses clean and sterile equipment. You should choose gold earrings, as this metal is less likely to cause an infection in newly-pierced ears. The earrings should also be post earrings, or small earrings that sit in your earlobe. By choosing a good piercer and earrings, you lessen your chances of getting an infected piercing.

Fresh ear piercings take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks to heal. During this time, you should take the proper steps to care for your piercings to avoid infections. This means cleaning the piercings twice a day with rubbing alcohol or an antibiotic cream. You shouldn’t take out your earrings during this time. Only touch your ears with clean hands.

In addition to keeping your ears clean with alcohol, you should also wash your ears at least once a day with soap and water. This also helps ward off infections before they start.

Even with proper care, about 20% of earlobe piercings become infected and 30% of cartilage piercings become infected. Most commonly, an infected ear piercing is caused by bacteria entering the wound, which can happen in several ways.

Non-sterile equipment. Pierced ears can easily get infected if the equipment or environment isn’t sterile.

Handling with unclean hands. If you clean your ears without washing your hands first, you run the risk of exposing your piercings to bacteria.

Not cleaning the piercing enough. Ear piercing infections are also common if you don’t wash them often enough.

Not allowing the piercing to heal. Infections are more likely if you try to take out the earrings before the piercing has healed.

It’s normal to notice some itching and tenderness when it comes to new ear piercings. During the first weeks, your piercing might look slightly red or produce a crusty discharge as it heals.

If you have a high ear piercing or cartilage piercing, you may also notice a small bump that forms around the piercing. This is called a granuloma and is also fairly normal. These bumps form when fluid gets stuck inside, but can be treated at home by applying a warm compress once a day.

Symptoms of an infected ear piercing typically include:

  • Redness or swelling at the piercing site or redness that continues to expand past the piercing
  • Crusty discharge
  • Heat felt in the area around the piercing
  • Thick pus that can be yellow or green
  • Pain or itching
  • Fever or feeling unwell
  • The earring getting stuck in your ear

Most ear piercing infections aren’t serious and can be cared for at home. To care for your piercing at home, follow these steps:

  1. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water. Once your hands are clean, mix one cup of water with half of a teaspoon of salt.
  2. Use a cotton ball or pad to apply the saltwater solution directly to the piercing site. Once clean, pat it dry with a clean cotton ball or gauze.
  3. After the piercing site is dry, you should apply an antibacterial ointment or cream. Be sure to read the instructions on the tube or bottle before using it. 
  4. Repeat these steps at least three times each day or until the signs of infection go away.
  5. Gently twist the earrings a few times a day so that your skin doesn’t get stuck on the jewelry.

In most cases, minor ear piercing infections go away within 2 weeks with proper home care.

When to call a doctor. In some cases, home care might not be enough. If your earring or the backing is stuck inside your earlobe, you should seek care from a doctor. You might also want to see a doctor if the redness and swelling continue to spread, or if the upper part of your ear is red.

Without proper treatment, ear piercing infections can spread to the rest of your body. This is called a systemic infection. The infection can also get worse or form an abscess. An abscess is an area of the skin that is swollen and filled with pus.