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Just Say No to Tongue Piercing

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Annie Finnegan

Aug. 15, 2000 -- There's new meaning to the term "fashion victim." It may be trendy, but tongue piercing also poses some serious health risks, including pain, swelling, blood poisoning, and gum injury, according to the Chicago-based American Dental Association (ADA).

In fact, the hazards of tongue piercing are so great that the ADA has declared war on the practice.

Oral piercing, which involves inserting studs or rings in the tongue, lips, cheeks, or a combination of sites, may also cause trauma to teeth, interference with chewing and speaking, and hypersensitivity to metals. Foreign debris may also collect at the site, and breathing difficulty may occur due to swelling in the pierced area, experts tell WebMD.

In tongue piercing, a needle is used to insert a barbell-shaped piece of jewelry through the midline of the tongue. Individuals typically undergo oral piercing procedures without anesthesia and with no complications; healing usually takes four to six weeks.

"Any time we perform a surgical procedure, we weigh the risk vs. the benefits, and I don't have a whole long list of benefits for tongue piercing," says ADA consumer advisor Matthew Messina, DDS, a dentist in Cleveland.

However, "we have a number of potential risks here," he tells WebMD. "The tongue is a big muscle and [has lots of blood vessels]. If a major artery is nicked, then a lot of bleeding will occur very quickly. It can be a big mess."

Ear piercing is safer because, unlike the tongue, the earlobe has almost no blood supply, according to the ADA.

Still, he is not in favor of a ban on the procedure. "Part of me says that if you outlaw it, more people will do it, since a lot is done as a rebellion anyway." But "rather than outlawing it, people should have to sign an informed consent that explains the risks, [and this] may dissuade them from going through with it."

For example, the tongue will swell, Messina adds. "It always does, [and] because we breathe around the tongue and if the back of the tongue swells, it can cause difficulty breathing."

Messina says he has seen four cases of broken teeth and cuts in the gum that occurred from scraping or biting on the pieces of jewelry.

Tongue piercing can also increase the risk of contracting diseases such as HIV, he says. "If the person doing the piercing is infected, or if the instruments were not adequately sterilized between candidates, it is possible to transmit diseases, including HIV and hepatitis," Messina says.

New York City dentist Jay L. Levy, DDS, agrees. "The people who are doing this are not trained and they are not using the same sterile techniques or instruments that dentists use, and they do not use anesthesia," he says.

Piercing may cause permanent numbness and/or paralyze the tongue if a nerve is injured, he adds.

Levy calls a tongue pierce a "plaque trap" that can sabotage proper dental hygiene. "There is now an extra thing in the middle of the tongue that can collect food and plaque," he says.


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