A cartilage piercing creates an open wound. As it heals, it may look swollen, lumpy, or like a bump.
In the days immediately following a cartilage piercing, the body's immune system triggers inflammation and swelling to heal the wound, sometimes leading to a cartilage bump.
Over time, cartilage piercings may develop other bumps due to infections or scarring. In this article, learn more about the causes and treatments for a cartilage piercing bump.
A cartilage piercing bump may be tiny and appear under the skin, or so large that it changes the shape of the ear.
Sometimes the bump is painful and swollen or may even ooze pus. Other bumps may be painless.
Infected bumps need prompt treatment to prevent the infection from spreading.
Some signs of an infection include:
- The bump appears shortly after a piercing, or after changing the jewelry.
- The bump is tender, painful, or red.
- The bump is very swollen or oozes pus.
- The skin surrounding the bump hurts.
- A person develops a fever.
Several issues can cause a bump to appear on or around a cartilage piercing. The most common causes include:
Inflammation and irritation
A piercing is an open wound in the skin, and the permanent hole it creates is a scar.
The healing process can take many months. During this period, the body's immune system tries to heal the wound and prevent bacterial infections.
Shortly after a piercing, it is not unusual to experience some bruising, redness, or swelling. A swollen bump may form around the piercing.
When bacteria or other harmful microbes get into a wound, they can cause an infection. A piercing is more vulnerable to infection before it fully heals.
Some infections are minor and clear up on their own. Some infections, however, are severe and may spread to other areas of the body.
It is difficult to tell how serious an infection is from symptoms alone, and delaying treatment can lead to complications. Some infections may even cause the ear to become deformed, so people should speak to a doctor if they experience any symptoms.
A person may have an infection if the bump is:
- oozing pus
Pustule, or piercing blister
A pustule, or piercing blister, looks like a pimple on or next to the piercing. It is a type of localized infection.
It is usually safe to treat these infections at home with warm compresses and frequent cleansing.
Sometimes, the blisters go away and return. See a doctor if the blister keeps coming back, if it is very painful, or if multiple blisters appear.
Granulation tissue is extra tissue that grows next to or over a healing wound. It may look or feel like a hard lump or a blister. Picking at the tissue or trying to remove it at home can cause an infection.
A doctor can remove the extra tissue with one of many in-office procedures, such as liquid nitrogen or silver nitrate. In some cases, a piercer may need to redo the piercing, or a person may need to abandon the piercing.
Keloid and hypertrophic scarring
Keloid and hypertrophic scars are large scars that appear after a wound has healed. While anyone can develop these scars, people with darker skin seem more likely to get keloids.
Keloids are typically larger than hypertrophic scars. They can grow so large that they itch or make it difficult to move the area. Hypertrophic scars are smaller and may fade with time.
A doctor may be able to shrink the scar by injecting a corticosteroid or freezing if off. Keloids may get bigger if a doctor operates on them, so surgery is not often an appropriate treatment.
An allergic reaction can cause bumps or swelling near the piercing. A person might notice symptoms either shortly after the piercing or after changing the jewelry.
Allergic reactions may cause intense itching or pain. The wound may look infected. Nickel is the most common cause of jewelry allergies and is usually present in gold or silver-plated jewelry. Switching to surgical steel, hypoallergenic, or certified nickel-free jewelry may help.
Anyone can develop a bump on a cartilage piercing, though some people are more vulnerable.
Risk factors include:
- a weak immune system due to certain drugs, HIV, or diabetes
- using unclean jewelry or unsafe piercing practices
- getting a piercing with a mall gun rather than using a needle and a licensed piercer
- having a history of keloid scars
- nickel or other allergies
- a history of piercing problems
The right treatment for piercing bumps depends on the cause.
Antibiotics can fight bacterial infections. A doctor may recommend either oral pills or topical creams.
Medical procedures, such as cryotherapy or corticosteroid injections, may help with scarring or unusual tissue growth.
A person who has an allergic reaction may need to change the piercing jewelry. If the reaction is severe, they may need to let the piercing heal over instead. Antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), may help if the itching or irritation is severe.
Some strategies that can prevent piercing problems include:
- Choosing the right piercer. Ensure the piercer is a licensed professional who sterilizes all their equipment. Avoid using ear piercing guns, which are difficult to clean and can spread infection or damage tissue.
- Keeping the piercing clean. Talk to a doctor or piercer about strategies for keeping the piercing clean. Try soaking with half a teaspoon of non-iodized sea salt in an ounce of warm water. Avoid hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, and other harsh chemicals, since they can irritate the piercing.
- Not touching or picking at the piercing. Touching the area can spread bacteria to the piercing, increasing the risk of infection. It may also damage the piercing, causing it to heal incorrectly.
- Avoiding piercings if there is a history of keloids. People who develop keloids easily are more likely to grow large keloid scars following a piercing.
Most piercings heal on their own, but minor irritation and complications are common. Rarely, a person may experience more severe issues, such as damage to the ear or systemic infection.
It is vital to keep piercings clean and to see a doctor for symptoms of an infection.
Talk to a licensed piercer about the right piercing aftercare, then diligently follow their instructions. If the piercing is painful, red, or swollen and home treatment does not help, seek medical advice.