It's been done for centuries and few would consider it a medical procedure. But in some cases a routine piercing of the ear can result in some seriously unpleasant consequences.
Case in point: An outbreak of serious ear infections related to commercial ear piercing in Oregon affected 25 people out of 118 who received piercings. Seven people ages 10- to 19 years old had confirmed infections, and 18 had suspected infections — all from the same jewelry kiosk. Some had to be hospitalized and some ended up with ear deformities.
All of the confirmed infections, outlined in a report in the latest Journal of the American Medical Association, involved the cartilage of the upper ear. The report adds the risk of getting disfiguring ear infections is almost four times greater if the upper ear cartilage is pierced rather than the lower ear lobe.
The culprit? Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common bacterium found in soil, on plants, in your shower, even on your hands, but which in certain situations, has the potential to cause serious infections.
Ironically, in the Oregon case, it was a disinfectant bottle that became infected with bacteria. The bottle was then continually refilled and used to spray equipment and skin before piercing. In addition, an open, spring-loaded piercing gun approved for earlobes but not cartilage piercing, was used.
Cartilage Piercing Riskier
Central to the problem is the location of the piercing on the ear.
Explains Dr. Rajiv Chandawarker, an assistant professor of plastic surgery at the University of Connecticut: "The upper part of the ear contains cartilage, which has little blood supply. The immune system does not have the ability to take care of the infection once it's in the cartilage. It stays there, and on top of that, it's difficult to get antibiotics to that site because blood can't really carry it there."
Added Chandawarker: "Once there is infection, the only choice we have is to take out the cartilage. Depending on how much needs to be taken out, patients might have to undergo reconstruction or they might end up with one ear smaller than the other one."
Brandy Murray, 16, was affected in the Oregon outbreak two years ago, and knows only too well the risks of cartilage piercing.
"I got one earring in my right upper ear cartilage. I always wanted one, so I went to a kiosk where they had an ear-piercing stand. Three days later, I couldn't sleep on it — it was big and really painful. I took out the earring and a lot of pus came out," recalls Murray.
She adds: "I had to have surgery and stayed in the hospital for a week. I couldn't do things I wanted to for a month and half afterwards because I had to heal. It ate my cartilage and now my right ear is smaller because it doesn't have cartilage."
Other Risks … And How to Reduce Them
Bacterial infection may not be the only medical consequence of piercing.
Since piercing involves needles, the risk of a getting a blood-borne infection like hepatitis, tetanus, or HIV is always present. Infections can also spread through the blood to places like the heart valves, and that can be fatal.