Piercings of the ear cartilage are a common form of body adornment. The piercings may be done using a piercing "gun" or with a sterilized needle at a piercing or tattoo salon. The piercing can get infected, especially if care isn't taken to keep the area clean and irritation-free. However, infection can be treated, and the piercing can still heal with no long-term ill effects. Infection of the skin and cartilage on the ear is called perichondritis.
The use of a "gun" for piercing is traumatic to surrounding tissue and creates a greater opportunity for infection. Piercing guns aren't thoroughly cleaned between uses, and are often operated by untrained or inexperienced piercers. Piercing guns should be avoided, especially for cartilage piercings, for the long-term health of the piercing and the individual.
Piercings completed at a piercing salon by a trained or experienced piercer utilize an extremely sharp, hollow needle. The needles are sterile, and reputable piercers will wear sterile gloves and take all necessary precautions to avoid contamination. The pain associated with needle piercings is also less than that of a piercing gun.
Initial Infection Risk
Initial risk of infection occurs during and immediately after the piercing. All equipment used should be sterilized. Use of dirty or nonsterile needles has a small but serious risk of hepatitis or bacterial infection. All needles should be opened from sterile packaging in front of the person being pierced. The area being pierced should be cleaned with rubbing alcohol.
Infection Risk After Piercing
Cartilage piercings generally take up to six months to heal completely. During this time, irritation--from clothing, harsh soaps, or physical trauma--can dramatically impact healing time and open the piercing for infection. Soreness, swelling and redness may accompany infection.
Treatment for Infection
If properly tended to and cared for, infection doesn't mean having to the remove the piercing. Clean the piercing area three to four times daily using a saline solution of nonionized salt and warm water. Rotate the metal jewelry for adequate cleaning. In rare cases, an occasional wipe-down with hydrogen peroxide will prevent post-piercing infection.
Severe Piercing Infection
The risk of severe infection is possible but rare. Hepatitis can be confirmed using a blood test; any suspicion of hepatitis infection should be investigated immediately. Even in the case of severe bacterial infection--necessitating antibiotic treatment--deformation of the cartilage can still occur, but there are likely to be few long-term ramifications.