Swollen Cartilage Piercings: Causes & Treatment

  • Written by Dan Hunter on December 15th, 2019
    Last updated: October 20, 2020

You’re excited about your new piercing and can’t wait to show it off. A few days later, it’s red, swollen, and painful to the touch. What gives?

While slight swelling after a cartilage piercing is perfectly normal, extreme or persistent swelling can be cause for concern.

A swollen cartilage piercing can indicate:

  • Skin infections
  • Allergic reaction
  • Skin conditions

What is a swollen cartilage piercing?

Puffy cartilage piercings aren’t as uncommon as you might think, as a whopping 30 percent of them are infected.

Immediately after piercing your cartilage, you may notice a small bump, general redness, slight swelling, slight pain, or bleeding. This is normal – you just poked a hole in your ear!

Cartilage is more likely to cause complications from a piercing than soft tissue such as the earlobe. It takes longer to heal and there is a higher risk of irritation and infection. These parts of the ear are more likely to have your hair brushed and are more likely to pull on it. The tragus area can also often swell a lot at the beginning of the healing process.

What causes a swollen cartilage piercing?

Skin infections

If redness, swelling, and pain do not subside after a few days, or if they return after the first time, this is a sign of a skin infection. The presence of pus is an immediate concern.

A newly pierced hole in your ear is raw and unprotected. This makes it easy for dangerous bacteria to creep in. Once inside, they trigger your body’s immune system which causes its little warriors to defend themselves. This process leads to inflammation.

Most skin infections are limited to a small area, such as scratches or cuts, and go away on their own. Infections that start off small and are not taken seriously enough, however, can spread and in the most severe cases be fatal.

Allergic reaction

Earrings are a common cause of allergic reactions, especially nickel. It is a metal alloy that causes dermatitis in around 10 percent of the population. This skin allergy is more common in women, although it could be because they tend to wear more jewelry.

If you are allergic to nickel you will notice swelling and redness. An allergic reaction differs from infection by itching, rashes, blisters, and dry spots.

Pyogenic granuloma and keloids

Pyogenic granuloma is a common proliferation of blood vessels. It can be caused by trauma like a piercing or an infection. You will notice a shiny red lump that can become very painful. Fortunately, it’s benign.

Keloids appear as a raised scar that turns red, pink, or purple in color. They are caused by an excess of protein in the skin trying to repair itself from damage. It can take up to a year to get your piercing. They are also benign, but can cause pain and itching. They can also get very large and unsightly.

These conditions can be distinguished from infection or allergy, but at first glance they may appear as swelling. They can both be surgically removed under local anesthesia, frozen with cryotherapy, treated with lasers, or in less severe cases treated with an ointment.

General irritation

Sometimes what we think is an infection is just an irritation. As mentioned earlier, it is normal to experience symptoms of irritation right after the cartilage is pierced. It includes redness, swelling, pain, and bleeding. These are signs that the skin has been exposed to abuse or trauma and will try to heal and protect itself.

If these symptoms persist, return, or worsen, you must see a doctor to get rid of any of the above conditions.

How to treat and prevent swollen cartilage piercings

Treatment is usually straightforward, and there are steps you can take to prevent this from happening altogether.

Take care of your piercing

To avoid complications, do the following:

Wash your hands

Wash your hands with soap and warm water before touching your piercing or jewelry. Also, remember to clean your nails.

Clean the wound

Use a fragrance-free, antimicrobial soap to create a lather over the wound and rub it gently with your hands. Do this two to three times a day until it is completely healed.

Clean the jewelry

Soak a cotton ball in alcohol or a specific piercing solution and clean your jewelry. Repeat this twice a day until it heals, and do this every week for as long as you keep the piercing on. If it’s still too tender to remove, use a cotton swab to gently wipe the jewelry while it’s intact, avoiding touching the skin.

chamomile

The chamomile leaf has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Soak a chamomile tea bag in warm water, drain it and let it rest on the piercing for five to 10 minutes.

Tea tree oil

This oil is known for its antibacterial and antifungal properties. Dilute a drop or two in a glass of water and apply directly to the piercing twice a day.

Saline solution

Dilute a quarter teaspoon of salt in a cup of water and apply it directly to the piercing twice a day. Saline solution has been shown to kill harmful bacteria and speed the healing process of a wound.

The best aftercare product that I have personally used is the After Inked Piercing Aftercare Spray. It is not only vegan-friendly, but also completely free of alcohol and additives. The solution is suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin, and comes in a generous spray bottle for easy application. When the spray is used from the beginning of the healing process, it will shorten healing times and aim to relieve persistent aches or pains.

Violin not

In simple terms, leave your piercing alone unless you clean it. It can make irritation symptoms worse, and bacteria from your hands can find a way out.

Keep your hair away

When your hair is long enough to fall over your ear, tie it up until it is healed. The hair contains numerous microbes that you do not want to have near the wound.

Avoid nickel

If you are unsure whether or not you are allergic, avoid jewelry made of nickel. Watch out for pieces marked as gold or silver, as most of the times nickel is coated with gold or silver. Opt for nylon or plastic jewelry, stainless steel, titanium, niobium, or 14 or 18-carat gold.

Safety precautions

There is a chance you could get an infection due to unsanitary conditions in the salon. Before you proceed, check the following:

  • Piercer: Only go to a piercer who is experienced, period. Don’t try to do it yourself
  • Gloves: You have to wear gloves
  • Sterilized equipment: Make sure they use a heat sterilization machine with all non-disposable equipment. Not only can the absence cause infection, but you can also get blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tetanus, and HIV.

Seeking treatment

If you’ve had a cartilage infection or a skin condition before, seek professional medical treatment.

Infections require antibiotics that are taken orally or contained in an ointment you apply. If there is a large amount of pus draining from the wound, you may need to be hospitalized.

The following symptoms suggest that the infection has spread and should urgent you to see a doctor or go to the emergency room:

  • Discharge that is yellow, green, or gray, smells or oozes in large quantities
  • fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • dizziness

Conclusion

If you notice swelling of your cartilage after being pierced, don’t fret – it has to happen. If the swelling continues along with other symptoms, it is best to seek professional treatment.

However, there are methods you can use to prevent this from happening. As long as you follow the correct hygiene and safety precautions, you will help minimize the risk of future swelling and infection.

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