Woman putting on earring


Ear piercing may seem to be among the most innocuous of body alterations, and in most cases it is a simple procedure without complications. However, there are some risks and basic precautions to be aware of.

“A number of things can go awry with ear piercings, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad to do it, but any time you put a foreign body into somebody’s skin, something bad can happen,” says dermatologist Dr. Hank Clever of SSM St. Joseph Health Center.

Infection of a newly pierced ear is the most common complication, Clever says. “There are certainly a lot of resistant bacteria out there, and that can really leave a very badly damaged ear that can stay swollen indefinitely.” While infection with an antibiotic-resistant bacterial strain is relatively rare, Clever advises individuals to see their primary- care physician if infection is suspected.

“Signs of an infected piercing include redness, tenderness, yellow discharge and swelling,” says Dr. Gail Moolsintong, a pediatrician with Mercy Clinic Pediatrics and Mercy Children’s Hospital. “The most common causes of infection are using unsterile piercing equipment, frequently touching the earlobe with dirty hands, or wearing the earring too tight, which restricts blood flow to the earlobe and air flow around the piercing site.”

Moolsintong and colleagues like Dr. Elaine Siegfried, a SLUCare pediatric dermatologist, caution against piercing babies’ or young children’s ears. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends postponing piercing until the child is old enough to take care of the pierced site. “Ideally, the ears should not be pierced until the child can play an active part in the decision, which is usually about age 8,” Moolsintong adds.

“One of the biggest risks is nickel allergy,” Siegfried says. “Nickel is one of the top five things kids get allergic to, and ear piercing in infancy is the biggest risk factor for that. And once you get allergic to nickel, you have chances of getting cosensitized to something else—cobalt is a particularly common thing. Both of those things are very difficult allergens.”

Nickel allergy often causes contact dermatitis, an itchy rash on the skin. The metal is found in a variety of common products, such as belt buckles, watchbands, eyeglass frames and necklace clasps. Nickel also is found in some foods, such as oatmeal, chocolate and nuts. The allergy, once formed, never goes away, and prescription topical or oral medications may be needed to counteract a reaction.

Regardless of age, Clever recommends some basic tips to help reduce the risk of complications. “Be sure you go to someone for the piercing who is reputable and uses sterile technique. Make sure the studs you initially put in are gold so you have less chance of triggering that nickel dermatitis. Make sure you really keep it clean afterwards. Don’t manipulate the initial studs a lot. Just let it heal, and it usually takes care of itself.”

More Health-wellness articles.