Hearing management

Updated 07 December 2017

You will be shocked at the dangers of ear piercings and tattoos

A small ear piercing or ear tattoo could do more damage than you ever imagined.

Ear piercings and tattoos have become increasingly popular, but have you ever wondered if they might be dangerous?  

You might think that just a small piercing or a tattoo couldn't possibly do any damage – but think again.

Unsterilised needles

Tattoos are basically a medical procedure; the skin is penetrated with a needle and ink is injected into the dermis, which is the second, deeper layer of the skin under the epidermis.

Unfortunately tattoos are not only painful, but can also result in infection if not done correctly. Unsterilised needles, for instance, can cause infections. 

A Health24 article cautions that if the tattoo artist is not properly trained, the areas where the skin is punctured may become infected, which can lead to scarring. 

The same applies to piercings.

The dangers are real

“Piercings and tattoos essentially have no effect on your hearing, but there have been problems with piercings when they go through the cartilage of the ear,” said Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist, Dr Gary Kroukamp.

Cartilage piercings are piercings of the upper part of the external ear, and take longer to heal than earlobe piercings.

When the piercing goes through the cartilage, it can cause infection (perichondritis) and cartilage overgrowth (cauliflower ear), Dr Kroukamp explained.

piercing in ear

“Perichondritis is when bacteria spread from the skin into the cartilage, causing the infection.” (Surgery, an injury to the side of the head, or contact sport can also cause infection and damage to the ear.)

“Strict aseptic technique is important to help prevent an infection from occurring, as well as regular cleaning around the fresh wound. However, any piercing through the cartilage should be avoided.”

Dr Kroukamp added that cartilage that becomes inflamed can start growing, resulting in deformity or damage to the ear. Any cartilage overgrowth needs to be surgically removed.

Fashions come and go

If you decide to get a piercing or tattoo in your ear, and are prepared to take the risks, you need to ensure that you have good after-care.

Tattoos are permanent and can only be removed by laser treatment, while a piercing will close if it is still fresh enough.

The American Academy of Dermatology provide these after-care tips.

Caring for ear piercings:

  • Always wash your hands before touching recently pierced ears.
  • Wash your ears regularly with soap and water.
  • Twist your piercing a few times daily to keep the piercing open.
  • Apply rubbing alcohol to the piercing twice a day to prevent infection.

Caring for ear tattoos:

  • Apply a water-based lotion to the tattooed skin, especially if it feels dry.
  • Apply sunscreen and minimise time spent in the sun while the tattooed skin heals.

However, bear in mind that if your tattoo or piercing becomes red, hard, itchy or infected, you need to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Images provided by Wikimedia Commons


Ask the Expert

Hearing Expert

Minette Lister graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Pathology (Audiology) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville in 2015. Thereafter, she completed her compulsory year of community service at Phoenix Assessment and Therapy Centre in Durban. In 2017, Minette started working for Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. She is passionate about working with children and adults to diagnose and manage hearing loss using state of the art technology. Minette offers hearing screening programmes for newborn and high-risk babies, as well as school-aged children, in order to decrease the incidence of late or unidentified hearing loss.

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