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Column originally published Jul 17, 2001

Piercing Can Lead To Nasty Infections

Question: Our teenage daughter wants to get more rings in her ears. Many of her friends are piercing and putting rings everywhere. We may be old-fashioned; we don’t like these rings. Is there any danger of infection?


You just have to look around on streets and in malls to see how popular these rings are. Many girls (and some boys) have several rings on their ears. Other popular spots include the nose, lips, umbilicus, and the tongue.

The biggest problem is infection. It depends on whether piercing is done by amateurs or professionals, and the precaution used during and after piercing to prevent infection. Research in United States showed that many companies do not train their staffs adequately the proper technique and precaution.

The chance of infection also depends on the location of the ring. The traditional piercing of the earlobe is probably the best and safest place. The earlobe is soft and has good supply of blood. Any bacteria that get into the “wound” (the hole) would be killed by white blood cells; therefore the chance of infection is very low.

However, if the upper part of the ear is pierced, the situation is very different. This part of the ear is relatively stiff because there is a piece of cartilage inside. Cartilage does not have good blood supply. As a result, any bacteria introduced during or after piercing of the cartilage would have a good chance of survival and multiplying, leading to infection.

Depending on the amount of bacteria introduced, infection can start fairly quickly or develop slowly. I have recently seen a young teenager who developed an infection two months after piercing her ear. Infection of the cartilage is called chondritis.

Because of poor blood supply to the cartilage, chondritis is very difficult to treat. Not infrequently, an abscess can develop which requires surgical drainage. Oral antibiotics are often not enough to kill these bacteria. Most of the time, intravenous antibiotics are required for several weeks.

Additional surgery may be necessary to remove any seriously damaged cartilage. The end result may cause great cosmetic concern for those image-conscious teenagers. Some may even require plastic surgery.

Another place where I have seen infections is the umbilicus. The reason may be more related to the location. Some teenagers experiment on themselves or each other when they have their umbilicus pierced. Bacteria can easily be introduced by inexperienced hands. Furthermore, umbilicus tends to harbour a lot of bacteria, thereby increasing the chance of infection.

It is definitely not easy to convince young people about the dangers of piercing. I have tried it when I was asked by parents, but my advice was often ignored. Although the overall chance of infection is relatively low, the danger is very real. Once infection sets in, treatment can be very difficult especially if it is in the ear cartilage.

If your daughter wants to have more rings, but doesn’t really care about the location, you may suggest her to use the soft tissue above the earlobes. As long as she avoids the cartilage, the danger of serious infection is much lower.

You can also help by checking out the stores to make sure that the staffs are knowledgeable, and they use good precautions to prevent infections. Care of the wound after piercing is also critical. Good luck!