Trend or trouble?

September 22, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

A tongue stud might look cool, but people with oral piercings risk dental problems.

Most dentists discourage oral piercing because it can cause pain, swelling, infection, drooling, taste loss, lisps, scarring, chipped teeth and tooth loss, according to information from the American Dental Association and the Academy of General Dentistry in Illinois.

"Please don't do it," says dentist Susan Sup, spokesperson for the academy. "You've got these beautiful virgin teeth, and one of these days you're going to crack that molar. Constant drooling, gum damage and taste loss can occur. There's always a chance of HIV. There's always a chance of hepatitis."

The surrounding areas of the mouth are easily infected and otherwise injured by tongue piercings - a phenomenon known as the "wrecking ball syndrome," says registered nurse Myrna Armstrong, a professor in the School of Nursing at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and an expert on tattoos and body piercings.


A July 2003 article in the Journal of the American Dental Association - which has taken a strong stance against oral piercing - cited the tongue and lip as the most commonly pierced oral sites at 81 percent and 38 percent, respectively. In addition to other problems, tongue piercing may damage gum tissue behind the lower front teeth, while lip piercing may injure gum tissue in front of the lower teeth, according to the article.

Fractured teeth are common for people with tongue piercings, who can chip their choppers while eating, sleeping, talking and playing with their oral jewelry, Armstrong says.

Dentist David Williams of Allegany Dental Care in Smithsburg has treated a number of tongue-pierced patients for chipped teeth and for eroded oral bone and gum tissue. Surgery was needed to prevent tooth loss in those cases, he says.

"I think there are a lot more negatives than positives to piercing," Williams says.

A tongue can swell after being punctured, and in extreme cases the tongue becomes infected and swells so much that it may cut off breathing. Because of the tongue's vascular nature, prolonged bleeding can result if vessels are punctured during the piercing procedure, according to the American Dental Association.

Plaque build-up around the tongue piercing can lead to infection, and food particles, spices and alcohol can irritate the piercing, Armstrong says. Oral infections can lead to infections in other parts of the body when the bacteria in the mouth get into the bloodstream. In rare cases, bacteria reaches the heart and causes a variety of serious problems, Sup adds.

Athletes, especially those who play contact sports, are at even greater risk from the "dirt, grime and sweat" that can infect oral piercings, Armstrong says.

"You have to take care of oral piercings," says Tisha Saville, who has her tongue pierced and owns the body piercing salon at Mr. Natural's in Williamsport. Saville - who hasn't had any trouble with her tongue piercing - requires her clients to sign a consent form that outlines piercing risks. She also sends them home with information about caring for their piercings, she says.

The Association of Professional Piercers Web site at also outlines risks and care, Saville says.

The Academy of General Dentistry suggests using an antiseptic mouthwash after every meal, and brushing the jewelry the same as you would your teeth. The piercing should be removed and brushed daily to remove unseen plaque after the tongue has healed, barring complications, within four to six weeks after the piercing. The larger, starter "barbell" that piercers place in the tongue to allow room for healing when the tongue swells should eventually be replaced with a smaller barbell to help protect the teeth, according to the Academy of General Dentistry.

Some parlors sell plugs that will keep holes open for as long as necessary. Still, many young people fail to remove their tongue jewelry as recommended because they fear the opening will close, Armstrong says.

Though relatively rare five years ago, tongue piercing has become a "mainstay procedure" in today's society - so an increasing number of people are getting cheek, lip and double tongue piercings to assert their individuality, says Armstrong, who has been studying the issues of tattoo and body piercing since 1989.

Dentists at Allegany Dental Care - with offices in Hagerstown and Smithsburg - have seen a rise in the number of lip piercings, Williams says. Such piercings are of special concern to dentists because they cause permanent scarring, increase the risk of gum damage and allow a greater chance for infection because the barrier between the inside and outside of the mouth has been breached, Sup says.

But the health risks linked to oral piercings don't seem to deter people from getting pierced, Armstrong and Saville say.

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