Contemplating a tragus piercing? You’re not alone.
Piercing the tiny nub of cartilage that sits just in front of the ear canal has become more popular since it was discovered that ear cartilage piercings may help manage migraine.
Before you make a beeline for the piercing studio, here are the answers to some FAQs about tragus piercings.
The theory is that ear cartilage piercings work similar to acupuncture and relieve pain by stimulating pressure points and nerve endings. In this case, that would be the vagus nerve, which extends from the base of your brain to the rest of your body.
Vagus nerve stimulation has already been proven to work on some other health conditions, like epilepsy and depression, but research into vagus nerve stimulation and benefits via piercing is still ongoing.
The technique can vary slightly from piercer to piercer. For example, some pierce from the outside in, while others go from the inside out. Aside from that, tragus piercings are made using a sterile needle — or at least they should be.
Generally, your piercer will:
- Clean the area using a medical-grade disinfectant.
- Mark the exact area to be pierced with a nontoxic marker.
- Some piercers place a cork or other barrier in your ear canal to protect it from the needle.
- Insert the needle into the tragus, through to the other side.
- Insert the jewelry into the piercing.
- Apply light pressure to stop any bleeding.
- Clean the area again.
A lot, according to some people, but only for a second. Cartilage piercings are generally considered more painful than piercing fleshier parts, like the earlobes, but it’s all relative.
The pain caused by the needle is so quick, though, that if you take a deep breath as it happens, it’ll be over before you exhale.
Having the needle right there next to your ear canal means you hear and feel every little thing. That can be unnerving for some. If you think it’ll help keep your tension in check, wear an earplug, as long as it’s not in the way. Being tense can make the experience feel much worse.
While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that being drunk or hungover, super tired or stressed, or having an empty stomach can also make things feel more painful.
Be sure you’re well rested, have some food in your belly, and aren’t nursing a hangover.
A tragus piercing can cost anywhere from $25 to $50.
The exact cost depends on several factors, including:
- the experience of the piercer
- the popularity and location of the studio
- the type of jewelry used
When budgeting for your piercing, make sure to factor in extra costs, like any aftercare products and a tip for your piercer.
You’ll also want to find out whether the jewelry is included in the total cost. Keep in mind that some metals and styles cost more than others.
You have a few options for the initial piercing and a lot more once your piercing is fully healed.
Most piercers use surgical stainless steel because it’s safe for most people and inexpensive.
Here’s a look at the recommended options for initial piercings:
- Surgical stainless steel. This is medical-grade stainless steel used for medical implants. It does contain some nickel, but a low rate of nickel release makes it safe even for most people with a nickel allergy. Still, if you have a severe nickel allergy, you’ll want to skip it.
- Titanium. This is another medical-grade metal, but unlike stainless steel, titanium is completely hypoallergenic. It’s more expensive, but if you have a severe nickel allergy, titanium is what your piercer will likely recommend.
- Solid 14-karat or higher gold. If you like the look of yellow, rose, or white gold and don’t mind paying more, gold is a safe option. Just make sure it’s solid and not gold-plated, which can flake and expose you to nickel and other alloys used under the plating.
- Niobium. This elemental metal is similar to titanium and safe for pretty much everyone, but it doesn’t have the implant-grade designation — not that that’s a big deal here. It also costs less than titanium.
Once you’re healed, the world is your oyster as far as jewelry options. Until then, you’ll need to stick with the jewelry used for the initial piercing.
Your piercer can help you choose the best type to start with. Barbells, hoops, and studs are the most common types used for initial piercings:
- Barbells are easy to get in and out of the piercing (though this won’t matter much for the initial piercing).
- Studs might offer some protection against scarring.
- Rings work best if you’re looking for something simple and discreet.
The type of jewelry you go with really just comes down to your personal preference.
Some tenderness and swelling is basically par for the course the first couple of days after puncturing tissue, along with some watery discharge and crusting.
More serious complications are possible, but you can greatly reduce your chance of these by making sure you go with an experienced piercer.
Here’s a look at the main things to watch for:
- Infection. An open wound (like a piercing) can allow bacteria to get in and cause infection. This can cause redness, pain, inflammation, and bleeding that doesn’t stop or gets worse. It can also cause dark or foul-smelling pus and a fever.
- Bloodborne infections. You can contract bloodborne infections from a contaminated needle, including hepatitis B and C, and HIV. Insisting your piercer use a sterilized, disposable needle is a must!
- Bumps. Keloids, pustules, and granulomas are just some types of bumps that are common with cartilage piercings. Allergic reactions (more on those in a sec) can also cause itchy bumps or a rash.
- Allergic reaction. Allergies to certain metals are fairly common, especially nickel. A lot of body jewelry contains some nickel, which could cause an allergic reaction. Symptoms include itching, redness, and blisters.
- Rejection. Sometimes your body treats jewelry like a foreign object and tries to push it out. This is called a rejection. If it happens, you may notice the hole getting bigger, or skin flaking or thickening around it.
- Catching or tearing. Ouch, right? But it’s possible to catch your piercing on something, like a shirt you pull over your head or a hat, causing the tissue to tear.
Your piercer will give you aftercare instructions to help your piercing heal faster and lower your risk for complications.
To care for your tragus piercing:
- Rinse it two or three times a day using a saline solution that you can buy or make yourself.
- Avoid touching the piercing so you don’t introduce bacteria and germs into the wound.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before cleaning or touching your piercing.
- Rinse any crust or discharge with warm water and gentle soap.
- Avoid harsh products or ingredients, like alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and perfumes.
- Try not to use earbuds or headphones until it’s healed, or at least for the first month or two.
- Be careful not to snag or catch your jewelry on things like sweaters, scarves, or hats.
It typically takes 3 to 6 months for a tragus piercing to heal, but it can take a lot longer — up to a year — depending on how well you care for it and whether you experience any complications along the way.
Factors like any existing medical conditions, certain medications, and even lifestyle choices, like smoking, can affect healing time.
It’s best to leave the initial jewelry in until the piercing is fully healed.
That said, you may be able to swap it out earlier if:
- your piercing is no longer tender
- the minimum healing time as advised by your piercer has passed
- any weeping or discharge and crusting has stopped
If you need to change it for some reason before it’s healed, have a piercer do it.
Any symptoms that persist or get worse are usually a pretty good indication that things are going south.
Here are specific symptoms to watch out for:
- severe pain
- persistent or worsening inflammation or redness
- swelling that lasts more than 48 hours
- thick, smelly discharge or pus
- excessive bleeding
- warmth from the piercing
- a bump at the piercing site
- thickening or flaking around the piercing
If you’re not sure if something is unusual, you can contact the piercer to double check, but it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider about any of the above symptoms.
That depends on how much you dislike it and whether you’re ready to kiss it goodbye for good.
If you’re on the fence, consider keeping it in until it’s healed. You can try another style of jewelry that’s more your bag.
If you really want it out before it’s healed, you or your piercer can take it out, but you’ll still need to continue with the aftercare until it’s healed.
Within a few weeks, skin will grow back over the hole.
The evidence about any tragus piercing health benefits may be lacking, but you can still rock one for pure aesthetics if you want to. Pick a reputable piercer, and use proper aftercare to keep it looking and feeling fine.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.