CHICAGO, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- Infectious disease researchers reported Friday that the common practice of piercing body parts containing cartilage can be more hazardous than piercing flesh because cartilage tends to heal more slowly.
At the annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, researchers related an incident where a piercing parlor employee who tried to keep her clients healthy by spraying disinfectant on studs that were inserted in ear cartilage actually made things worse because her bottle of disinfectant was contaminated.
Eventually, seven boys and girls who wanted to make a fashion statement with studs around the top of their ears and not just in their ear lobes ended up with ugly Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections -- which in a few cases resulted in hospitalization and disfiguring injuries.
"Kids don't seem to realize that ear piercing is, in its own way, an invasive procedure, and until it heals, any pierced body part is at risk for infection," said William Keene, an epidemiologist at the Oregon Department of Human Services Acute and Communicable Disease Program in Portland.
"One of the problems we saw in this case," he said, "is that wounds to the ear cartilage are slow to heal. There are few blood vessels in that area so the healing process is slowed. My advice is that you shouldn't get the ear pierced there at all," he told United Press International. "But if you are going to do it, make sure the operator uses a needle, not a piercing gun."
At the piercing boutique, in Klamath Falls, Ore., the young woman performing the procedure took sterile studs out of their packages, inserted them into a piercing gun and then -- to be safe -- spritzed the studs with disinfectant.
"I don't understand why she would try to disinfect something that was sterile, but she did," Keene said. "The employee didn't realize that spraying a sterile earring with disinfectant was actually worse than doing nothing from an infection control point of view."
Within a few days the infection ears turned red, weeped pus and swelled, sending two of the youths went to a local doctor. Keene said that doctor -- although under no requirement to do so -- alerted health officials who began an investigation into the outbreak.
"Pseudomonas infections are nasty things, but rarely do they occur on the skin," said Dr. Craig Smith, director of infectious diseases at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, Albany, Ga. "The bug is ubiquitous -- its the type of organism that creates slime on chicken that has gone bad or rests in the mechanisms of water faucets. This is a fascinating case history."
When Keene and other Oregon public health officials began making calls, they found five more cases. Remarkable, although the woman used exactly the same procedure in piercing the ear lobe, no one who got that treatment was infected.
The infected customers were five girls, aged 10 to 17, and two men, 18 and 19 years of age. All developed auricular chondritis -- cartilage infection in the outer ear. Four required hospitalization, including one patient who needed intravenous antibiotics. Two needed surgery to drain abscesses. "Some of these kids ended up with quite serious cosmetic problems," Keene said.
"This is a cautionary tale," he said. "We don't know how common these kinds of infections are."