Ear and Nose Cartilage Piercings: Pain and Care

So, You’re Thinking About Getting Your Cartilage Pierced?

As with any body modification procedure, there is a lot of thought that needs to go into your decision. Will it hurt? How long will it take to heal? Where do I get it done? These are just a few of the many questions you might have.

In the following paragraphs I will answer some of these most frequently asked questions, go over the pros and cons, and offer some helpful hints on caring for cartilage piercings.

What Is a Cartilage Piercing?

The cartilage (which is harder than flesh but softer than bone) in your ears or nose can be pierced. Each spot has its own name.

Ear Piercings

There’s a lot of cartilage in the ear. The soft fleshy lobes at the lowest part of your ear are pretty much the only parts of the ear that don’t have it. It isn’t uncommon to see someone with many piercings in the same ear.

The helix is located on the outer rim of your ear. The helix extends from just over the lobe and curves up and around to meet the temple. You can get a piercing high or low on your ear’s helix, depending on your personal preference, and you can get as many piercings as you like. This is the most popular spot for this kind of piercing—so much so that some people use the term “cartilage piercing” to refer to a helix piercing. The daith or forward helix is where the helix ends, closest to the ear canal. An industrial piercing is two helix piercings connected with hardware (usually a bar).

The anti-helix is the curve of raised cartilage just inside the helix. The top part, where the anti-helix curves under the helix, is called the rook. Halfway down the anti-helix, usually where the helix and anti-helix are closest together, is called the snug.

The conch (or conque) is the inner part of the outer ear, used for capturing sound, a cupped part where a finger fits nicely (without blocking the ear canal).

The tragus is the little raised flap of cartilage separating the ear canal from the side of the face. It is often quite thick. The anti-tragus is the raised bit opposite the tragus (if you pinch the tragus and anti-tragus together, a bowl is formed under the ear canal).

Nose Cartilage Piercings

There’s a lot of cartilage in your nose, too. If you examine your own nose and feel which parts are flexible, then imagine a skeleton’s nose and how the nose bone stops quite high up the ridge, you realize how much of your nose is made of the stuff.

The septum is the flap of skin-covered flesh and cartilage that separates the nostrils. Some septum piercings pierce through the cartilage, but some don’t.

Nose tip piercings pierce the bottom of the septum between the nostrils and go up through the tip up to the top of the nose. This is sometimes known as a rhino piercing.

Why Get a Cartilage Piercing?

These piercings can be lovely and interesting. Some are quite dainty and some can be extreme. I suppose it depends on and reflects the life you choose for yourself.

Since the 1990s, piercings have been a part of the mainstream. Some people pierce just because they like how it looks, while others pierce for poetic or spiritual reasons. Some pierce to mark or remember an important event in their life. For some, piercings represent psychic wounds and for some, healing. Piercings can be used for self-expression, to conform to culture, or to rebel against it. Some report that piercings give them sexual pleasure.

I chose the helix for my piercing because this area is easily hidden by hair or hats. You have the freedom to choose when you want to flaunt your piercing and when you prefer to keep it a secret. When I decide I want to show it off, I simply tie my hair up or tuck it behind my ear. If you want a cool piercing, but want to be able to control when you want to show it off, then the helix piercing is the perfect choice.

Why Not Get a Cartilage Piercing?

What are the cons?

The location of a piercing can have drawbacks. First off, if not careful, the jewelry can get snagged on things such as hair, clothing, brushes, combs, or glasses. This isn’t always extremely painful, but it can leave your piercing a little sore and red for the rest of the day and can delay healing. My helix piercing gets snagged and bumped every now and then, but it’s never anything too bad. I just wash it with some antibacterial soap or ear care solution to prevent infection. As long as you are mindful when you are doing anything that might snag and catch on your jewelry, you should be okay.

Secondly, these kinds of piercings have very long healing periods because this tissue heals itself from the outside in, meaning the outer layers might appear healed but the inner layers might still be raw and sore. Because the piercing looks fine, many people assume after a few weeks that the piercing is fully healed, but it isn’t. This can lead to difficulties healing and even infections.

Other things to consider are infections, which are rarely serious, but the Mayo Clinic estimates that 30% of piercings result in a treatable bacterial infection. Because cartilage doesn’t have its own blood supply, it is more prone to infection than other kinds of piercings, and antibiotics won’t help you because there’s no blood to transport the medication. In addition, some people experience allergic reactions to the metal in jewelry. Although the jewelry can eventually be removed, a piercing may leave a hole or scar that never heals completely. You may even experience excess scar tissue.

How to Care for a Piercing

Don’t touch! As with all piercings, cartilage piercings should be touched as little as possible since your hands carry bacteria and may cause infection. Contact with any substances (body fluids, moisture, makeup, body sprays, etc.) should be avoided.

Don’t twist the jewelry either, since it can tear the fistula (the healing skin) and cause scarring, make it harder to heal, and sometimes even cause a rejection of the piercing.

Keep it clean, but don’t pick! You’ll just get bacteria into the wound. The crust that forms is a normal part of the healing process.

To clean: When you’re in the shower, let the warm water wash over the piercing. You can also douse the area with a sterile saline solution (the same stuff you use to clean contacts: You can make your own saline by adding 1/4 teaspoon of non-iodized salt to a cup of warm water). If your piercing is painful or irritated, you might soak it in the saline as well. Only use an antibacterial soap if you worry that your piercing has come into contact with something dirty.

How Long Does It Take to Heal?

Give your new piecing 3-6 months of healing time. Some people may need 6-12 months for their cartilage to fully recover. During this period, clean your piercing twice daily with warm water or a saline solution.

They said my helix piercing would probably take 6 to 8 months to heal, 12 months maximum, but that I could change the jewelry after three months if it was healing well. I integrated my cleaning time with my usual morning and evening rituals: I cleaned it in the morning after I showered and brushed my teeth and then again in the evening when I got ready for bed. Doing it this way helped make cleaning my piercing seem like a simple addition to my daily routine, and also helped me remember to do it.

Will There Be Pain?

A lot of people have asked if getting a cartilage piercing is painful. Although everyone’s pain tolerance is different, for the most part it isn’t anything too painful. Yes, there is some level of discomfort. Getting a foreign object inserted into your ear isn’t going to feel pleasant, but it won’t be anything unbearable (or at least it shouldn’t!).

Does the piercing procedure hurt? The initial sensation feels like a small, dull pinch; maybe a five or six on the pain scale. A great way to simulate the feeling is to quickly pinch the area you would like pierced. It won’t be an exact replica of the feeling you’ll experience, but it will give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.

How long does the pain last? It is normal for your ear to hurt immediately after getting a cartilage piercing, pain that commonly lasts for two weeks to a month. Be careful to not sleep on the side that was pierced: Doing so will cause healing complications and unnecessary discomfort.

What can I do for the pain? Fortunately, there are a few simple things that can reduce the pain.

  • First, everyday painkillers such as Tylenol or aspirin can temporarily relieve the tenderness. I recommend taking two Tylenol every four hours for the first few days. Consult a healthcare professional before using these painkillers for longer than a week.
  • Second, icing your piercing for the first few nights will help reduce swelling and soreness. An easy way to fit icing in is to do it when you have some down time. Ice it while reading, watching TV, or relaxing. I always ice my new piercings for the initial week or so, and it drastically reduces soreness and tenderness.
  • Third is taking care. As mentioned previously, be very cautious with your new piercing. Be sure not to fiddle with it, as you may inadvertently cause infection, and do your best to keep it protected from bumps and hits.

Where Can I Get a Cartilage Piercing?

Finding a place to get pierced has never been simpler! Most tattoo shops offer body piercings as well. Just inquire to verify if they will be able to do a piercing. Some retail shops such as Claire’s— or others at your local mall—offer cartilage piercings. Of course, there are also parlors that perform only body piercings.

When choosing a place, go with your gut instinct and your personal comfort zone, but also do your research. Instead of choosing the “coolest” or most convenient place, go wherever you feel you will get a safe, sterile, sanitary piercing. Make sure it is a clean shop with no red flags such as dirty equipment, careless staff, and unhappy customers.

Do your homework! Read the reviews online before you choose. If customers walked away with a bad experience, the odds are that you will, too. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions. Ask about their sterilization procedures and credentials. If they seem secretive or defensive, it is best to take your business elsewhere. Remember: This is your body! You want a skilled professional doing the piercing, not someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

Rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t eat a meal there, don’t get pierced there.

Piercing Gun vs. Needle

I want to address an ongoing question: The piercing gun vs. needle debate. For years it was thought that piercing guns promoted infection, shattered cartilage, and disfigured the ear. Some point to evidence to support the claim that piercing with a piercing gun can shatter the cartilage.

However, recent medical studies have shown that piercing guns may not be as terrible as once assumed. It is now becoming evident that any piercing, by needle or by gun, can have negative consequences if the piercer does not perform the procedure properly and does not use sanitary equipment. So the problem with guns may not be the guns themselves, but the experience and training of people who use them.

Although some people swear by using special piercer’s needles or a dermal punch and say that the guns they use at mall places are never properly cleaned, there is no solid evidence to support claims that piercings done by a piercing gun will result in infection (or another complication). But we do know that any piercing that isn’t pierced with care and caution will be prone to complications. Every piercing that I have has been pierced by a professional with a piercing gun, and they have all healed wonderfully and lasted many years.

Closing Tips

Here are some tips I have learned over the years for healing and maintaining a cartilage piercing:

Tip #1: Clean, clean, clean! Twice a day! A piercing is essentially an open wound, so treat it as such! Wash your hands before you clean or touch your piercing. Don’t let anyone else touch your piercing. It might seem silly to ask a friend or family member to wash their hands before checking out your new piercing but you need to take every precaution necessary in keeping yourself free of infection. Simple things like sanitizing after swimming or showering, washing pillow cases and sheets regularly, and keeping shampoos, hairsprays, and other harsh chemicals away from your piercing should insure a healthy healing process.

Tip #2: Don’t rush the process! Your piercing will take 3-6 months to heal fully. Do not try to speed along the healing process. Relax and let your body work its magic. I urge you to not change the jewelry or stop cleaning until it is healed completely. Changing your jewelry before your piercing is healed can result in infection or rejection. Allow your piercing to recover properly so you can enjoy it for years to come!

Tip #3: Listen to your body! You know your body better than anyone else, and if something just doesn’t seem right to you, there might be a problem. If you follow the sanitary guidelines mentioned in this article, you shouldn’t have any issues. Things like mild discomfort and redness can just be a sign that your body is trying to recover from the trauma of being pierced, but sometimes problems can still arise. Keep an eye out for persistent pain, redness, swelling, or a greenish, milky discharge secreting from the piercing, as these can be your body’s way of saying there is something wrong. If these warning signs do present themselves, or you have any concerns, visit your doctor. Usually an infection can be easily treated, but serious issues like tissue damage or disfigurement of the cartilage do occur. To ensure these things don’t happen to you, keep following the rules and paying attention.