Ear Piercing Can Lead to Disfiguring Infection

ByABC News
February 24, 2004, 10:44 AM

Feb. 24 -- 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."