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Perichondritis is an infection of the layer of tissue which surrounds the cartilage of the ear. Known as the perichondrium, this tissue becomes red and swollen in patients with perichondritis, and it may begin to drain pus and other fluids in addition to being very painful. The treatment for perichondritis is a course of antibiotics to kill the bacteria causing the infection, which may be delivered intravenously in severe cases where fast-acting treatment is needed. It may also be necessary to lance the ear to drain the infected fluid, and some doctors may prescribe gentle rinses of the ear during the healing process to clear infectious material and soothe the pain of the infection.
Trauma to the ear is the most common cause of perichondritis. Piercings, especially through the cartilage, are a common cause, but cuts, insect bites, trauma incurred on the sports field, and so forth can also lead to this condition. It usually starts out looking like mild cellulitis, a skin infection which can resolve on its own. As the infection enters the perichondrium, the patient can experience severe pain and swelling. If the infection is not treated, it can enter the cartilage and cause complications for the patient.
One of the major complications of concern is deformation of the ear as a result of damage to the cartilage. This can result in “cauliflower ear,” in which the patient's ear appears abnormal. While this will not necessarily inhibit the patient's hearing, it can cause social anxiety, as the deformed ear may attract undesirable attention.
If someone starts to experience redness, pain, and swelling in the ear after the ear has incurred trauma, it is a good idea to go to a doctor to determine whether or not the ear is infected. A doctor can examine the ear and interview the patient to learn more about the situation, and prescribe antibiotics if appropriate. Early treatment is the best way to avoid complications. Especially in the case of a patient with a compromised immune system, early treatment is critical to avoid an out of control infection.
Some patients may experience recurrent perichondritis. In these cases, it may be a good idea to discuss potential lifestyle changes and other prevention methods with a doctor. For example, if an athlete keeps getting perichondritis, it may be a good idea to change helmets or to adjust the padding in a helmet to provide more protection to the ear. A simple lifestyle change like sleeping on the opposite side of the recurrent infection can also be very helpful for reducing the risk of recurrence.