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Pierced Ear Infection

What is a pierced ear infection?

Signs of an infection of a pierced ear are tenderness, a yellow discharge, redness, and some swelling.

The most common causes of infection are piercing the ears with unsterile equipment, inserting unsterile posts, or frequently touching the earlobes with dirty hands.

Another frequent cause is earrings that are too tight either because the post is too short (the thickness of earlobes varies) or the clasp is closed too tightly. Tight earrings don't allow air to enter the channel through the earlobe. Also, the pressure from tight earrings reduces blood flow to the earlobe and makes it more vulnerable to infection.

Some inexpensive earrings have rough areas on the posts that scratch the channel and can cause an infection. Inserting the post at the wrong angle also can scratch the channel, so a mirror should be used until insertion becomes second nature. Posts containing nickel can also cause an itchy, allergic reaction.

How long will it last?

With proper care, most mild earlobe infections will clear up in 1 to 2 weeks. Recurrences are common if the youngster is not conscientious in ear and earring care.

How can I take care of my child?

If the ear is infected, clean both sides of the earlobe with rubbing alcohol. Remove the earring and post 3 times a day and cleanse them with rubbing alcohol.

Apply an antibiotic ointment (a nonprescription item) to the post and reinsert it. Continue the antibiotic ointment for 2 days beyond the time the infection seems cleared.

How can I help prevent infections?

  • Recommended age for pierced ears

    Pierced earrings should not be worn until a child is old enough (usually older than 4 years) to know not to fidget with them (which can lead to infections) or take them out and put them in her mouth (which can lead to swallowing or choking on them). Ideally, the ears should not be pierced until a child can play an active part in the decision (usually past age 8).

  • Prevention of infections when ears are first pierced
    • Do not pierce your child's ears if she has a tendency to bleed easily, form thick scars (keloids), or get staph skin infections.
    • Have your child's earlobes pierced by someone who is experienced and understands sterile technique. Piercing by someone inexperienced can result in infections or a cosmetically poor result.
    • The initial posts should be 14-carat gold or stainless steel.
    • Do not remove the posts for 6 weeks.
    • Apply the earring clasp loosely to allow for swelling.
    • After washing the hands, clean both sides of the earlobes with an ear care antiseptic usually containing benzalkonium chloride (not rubbing alcohol which can interfere with healing). Then turn the posts approximately 3 rotations. Do this twice a day for the first 6 weeks.
    • By the end of 6 weeks, the lining of the channels should be healed and earrings may be changed as often as desired.
  • Prevention of later infections
    • Remind your child not to touch the earrings except when inserting or removing them. Fingers are often dirty and can contaminate the area.
    • At bedtime, remove the earrings so that the channel is exposed to the air during the night.
    • Clean earrings, posts, and earlobes with rubbing alcohol before each insertion.
    • Clean telephones often with a disinfectant.
    • Attach the clasps loosely to prevent any pressure on the earlobes and to provide an air space on both sides of each earlobe.
    • Polish or discard any posts with rough spots.
  • Prevention of injury to the earlobe

    Remind your child that dangling earrings can lead to a torn earlobe requiring plastic surgery. Such earrings should not be worn during sports. Your child should also take precautions while dancing, hair washing, or handling young children who might yank the earrings.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call IMMEDIATELY if:

  • The earring clasp becomes embedded in the earlobe and can't be removed.

Call within 24 hours if:

  • Swelling or redness spreads beyond the pierced area.
  • Your child develops a fever (over 100°F, or 37.8°C).
  • The infection is not improving after 48 hours of treatment.
  • You have other concerns or questions.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2014.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2009-06-19
Last reviewed: 2013-06-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©2014 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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