How infections develop
An industrial piercing can describe any two pierced holes connected by a single barbell. It usually refers to double perforation on the cartilage at the top of your ear.
Cartilage piercings — particularly those high on your ear — are more prone to infection than other ear piercings. That’s because these piercings are typically closer to your hair.
Your hair can irritate the piercing by:
- spreading excess dirt and oil
- getting tangled around the barbell
- exposing the piercing to hair products
And because this piercing involves two different holes, your risk for infection doubles. If you do get an infection, it may or may not affect both holes. The hole that’s closest to your head is the most vulnerable.
Keep reading to learn how to identify infection, what you can do to ease your symptoms, and how to prevent further complications.
It’s normal to experience some irritation after the initial piercing. Your skin’s still adjusting to the two new holes.
During the first two weeks, you may experience:
- mild swelling
- slight heat or warmth
- occasional throbbing
- clear or white discharge
In some cases, the redness and swelling can spread and enlarge. These could be early signs of an infection around the piercing.
Other signs of infection include:
- uncomfortable swelling
- persistent heat or warmth
- severe pain
- excessive bleeding
- bump at the front or back of the piercing
Your piercer is the best person to diagnose an infection.
In some cases, you may be able to treat the infection at home. But if your symptoms are severe — or if this is your first time dealing with infection — you should see your piercer right away.
If your piercing is new, one of your first impulses might be to play with the jewelry by twisting it back and forth. You should resist this urge, especially if you’re already experiencing unwanted side effects.
Moving the jewelry around can increase swelling and irritation, as well as introduce new bacteria into the holes. The barbell should be completely off-limits except during cleansing.
It might also be tempting to take the barbell out to check out the jewelry or as a way to better cleanse the area.
Not only can this cause further irritation, removing the jewelry may allow a newer piercing to close. This can trap bacteria inside your body and allow the infection to spread beyond the piercing site.
Most piercers recommend a daily cleansing routine for the first several months after you get your piercing. You should clean two to three times a day with a saline or salt solution.
If you’re experiencing signs of infection, regular cleansing is the best way to flush out bacteria and prevent further irritation.
With a pre-made saline solution
A pre-made saline solution is often the easiest way to clean your piercing. You can purchase these over the counter (OTC) at your piercer’s shop or your local pharmacy.
To clean your piercing:
- Soak a cloth or sturdy paper towel with saline. Don’t use cotton balls, tissues, or thin towels — these can get caught in the jewelry and irritate your piercing.
- Gently wipe around each side of the barbell.
- Make sure you clean the outside and inside of your ear on each end of the piercing.
- Repeat this process several times until the holes are completely clean. You don’t want to leave any “crust.”
- Avoid harsh scrubbing or prodding, as this will cause irritation.
Since you won’t be facing this piercing in the mirror, it may be helpful to use a handheld mirror to get a better view while cleaning.
With a DIY sea salt solution
Some people prefer to make their own saline solution with sea salt instead of purchasing something OTC.
To make a sea salt solution:
- Mix 1 teaspoon of sea salt with 8 ounces of warm water.
- Make sure the salt completely dissolves before you begin to use the solution.
- When it’s ready, follow the same steps for cleansing with pre-made saline.
Applying a warm compress can help promote wound healing by reducing irritation, alleviating swelling, and easing pain.
You can make your own warm compress by sticking a damp towel or other cloth-based item in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time.
Some store-bought compresses contain herbal combinations or rice grains to help seal in warmth and provide a bit of pressure for swelling relief.
You can make these modifications to your homemade compress, too. Just make sure your cloth can be sealed or folded so that none of the added ingredients can fall out.
To use a warm compress:
- Stick a damp cloth, rice sock, or other homemade compress in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time. Repeat until it’s comfortably warm to the touch.
- If you have an OTC heat compress, microwave or heat as directed on the product packaging.
- Apply the compress to the affected area for 20 minutes at a time, up to twice per day.
You may consider using two small compresses at a time to make sure both sides of your piercing are being treated.
You may be able to speed the healing process along by treating the infection with a chamomile compress. Chamomile is known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
First, conduct a patch test to make sure you’re not allergic to chamomile. To do this:
- Apply a steeped tea bag to the inside of your elbow.
- Remove the tea bag after two to three minutes. Don’t rinse the area. Let it air dry.
- If you don’t experience any irritation or inflammation within 24 hours, it should be safe to apply a chamomile compress to your ear cartilage.
To use a chamomile compress:
- Steep two tea bags in boiled water for five minutes.
- Remove the bags and allow them to cool for about 30 seconds.
- Wrap each bag in a paper towel. This prevents the tea bag or its string from getting caught on your jewelry.
- Apply one tea bag to each hole for up to 10 minutes.
- You may need to refresh the bags with warm water every couple of minutes.
- When you’re done with the compress, rinse the area with warm water and pat dry with a clean towel.
- Repeat daily.
Known for its antimicrobial properties, tea tree oil can also help clean and disinfect your piercing.
Just make sure you dilute it with an equal amount of carrier oil or saline before applying it to your skin. Pure tea tree oil is potent and may cause additional irritation.
You should also do a patch test before applying the mixture to your piercing. To do this:
- Rub the diluted mixture into the inside of your elbow.
- Wait for 24 hours.
- If you don’t experience any itchiness, redness, or other irritation, it should be safe to apply elsewhere.
If your patch test is successful, you can either:
- Add a couple of drops to your saline solution so that it’s a part of your initial cleansing process.
- Use it as a spot treatment after you cleanse. You can dip a clean paper towel into your diluted mixture and gently apply it to both sides of each piercing up to twice a day.
In theory, antibiotics can help prevent infections. But OTC antibiotics, such as Neosporin, can actually do more harm than good when applied to piercings.
Ointments and creams are thick and may trap bacteria under your skin. This can cause further irritation and make the infection worse.
Antiseptics like rubbing alcohol can also damage healthy skin cells, leaving your piercing more vulnerable to bacteria.
It’s best to stick with your cleansing and compress routine. If you don’t see improvement within a day or two, see your piercer for advice.
Although cleaning your piercing is important, it’s just one part of a larger care plan.
Learning to evaluate everything that may come into contact with your ear, and adjusting accordingly, can help you reduce the amount of dirt and bacteria that gets into the piercing.
- Keep your hair clean by shampooing every other day or daily.
- Avoid dry shampoos. These can flake off from your hair and get into your piercing.
- Don’t wear snug-fitting hats or bands over your ears.
- Use earbuds instead of headphones.
- Use hair products with caution. Be sure to cover your ear with a piece of paper or other barrier when using sprays.
- Pull tops over your head slowly so you don’t catch the jewelry by mistake.
- Change your pillowcase once a week and change your sheets at least once every other week.
Unless your piercer has instructed otherwise, continue your daily cleansing and soaking routine until your symptoms subside and your piercing has completely healed.
If you don’t see any improvements within two or three days — or your symptoms worsen — see your piercer. They can take a look at the piercing and provide specific recommendations for cleaning and care.