Heavy Metal: When it’s bad for your ears

Consumer Reports News: August 31, 2009 11:09 AM

No, despite the title, this is not another noise blog. Last month I wrote about the health risks of skinny jeans after I saw a magazine ad for a "Skinny jeans challenge" while waiting to see a surgeon for a torn earlobe. Ironically, I, too, had sacrificed my better judgment for the sake of fashion. After years of wearing heavy gold and silver earrings, gravity had caused a split in the piercing that needed to be surgically repaired.

So as I wait for my incision to heal and sit out the three-month period before I can get my ear lobe re-pierced, I did some investigating. Ear piercing has been around for centuries and practiced in many cultures. Over time the custom has grown in the Western world with around 90% of women currently adorning at least one ear with jewelry. Along with this increase in popularity has come a rise in the number of complications, 35% according to one survey of 452 hospital nurses, most of those infections.

It’s not unusual to develop an infection as a result of piercing. Although infections are most often localized to the skin, if left untreated, they can lead to more serious illness including abscess, septicemia (an infection of your blood) and endocarditis (an infection of the heart lining and valves). Earrings may also become embedded in the lobes of children and require surgery. The risk appears to have an association with the practice of using ear piercing guns.

The most common problem experienced is contact dermatitis—from an allergy to nickel used in inexpensive earrings—which occurs in about one out of ten people. Keloids, growths that extend beyond the natural boundaries of scars, are more common in people who have a family history of the condition, and in African Americans. There is no cure for these disfiguring lesions and surgery appears to make them grow back even larger. Permanent disfiguration may also result from upper ear piercing, a more recent fad. Because cartilage lacks blood supply, numerous bacteria have been implicated in infections including abscesses in this area.

So what can you do to minimize the risks? Here’s my advice:

  • To avoid ear lobe tears, don’t wear heavy earrings for long periods of time, and remove hoops or dangling earrings when using the phone, styling your hair, or when you’re holding a baby or toddler.
  • If your ear lobe is torn suddenly as a result of trauma (from a hairbrush, baby pulling on earring, etc.), seek immediate medical attention. Otherwise, when the torn edges heal, they can form fistulas or clefts.
  • If you want your ears (or any body part) pierced, go to a trained and licensed professional; don’t attempt to perform the procedure yourself or have a friend do it.
  • Never get a piercing from a reusable piercing gun.
  • Think twice about getting a upper ear (cartilage) piercing.
  • See your doctor at the first sign of infection.
  • If you have a family history of keloids, talk to your doctor before having your ears pierced .
  • Before you buy inexpensive earrings, look for the label "nickel-free" or "hypoallergenic".
  • Postpone any ear piercing in your child until he/she is mature enough to take care of the pierced site his/herself.

—Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical adviser, Consumer Reports

Photo courtesy of Katie Tegtmeyer

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