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

Dr Kara Hoffman graduated from UCT in 2004, thereafter she completed her year of community service in Durban. In 2010 she completed her Masters Degree in Paediatric Aural Rehabilitation from UKZN. In 2016, she became a Doctor of Audiology through the University of Arizona (ATSU). Dr Hoffman and her partner Lauren Thompson opened a fully diagnostic audiology practice called Thompson & Hoffman Audiology Inc. In 2011 with world-class technology and equipment to be able to offer the broad public all hearing-related services including hearing testing for adults and babies, vestibular (balance) assessments and rehabilitation, industrial audiology, hearing devices, central auditory processing assessments for school-aged children, school screening, neonatal hearing screening programmes at Alberlito and Parklands Hospital, cochlear implants and other implantable devices, medicolegal assessments and advanced electroacoustic assessments of hearing. Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. are based at Alberlito Hospital in Ballito, St Augustines Hospital in Durban and at 345 Essenwood Road, Musgrave. The practices are all wheelchair friendly. There are three audiologists that practice from Thompson & Hoffman – including Dr Kara Hoffman, Lauren Thompson & Minette Lister. The practice boasts professional, highly qualified, and extensive diagnostic services where all your hearing healthcare needs can be met. The additional licensing in vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, paediatric rehabilitation and cochlear implantation places this practice in one of the top specialist audiological positions in South Africa, with a wealth of experience in all clinical areas of audiology and is a very well respected and sought-after practice.

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