Many people choose to get an oral piercing as a form of self-expression, and sometimes even as a badge of courage for facing fear and pain. Tongue piercings have seen an uptick in popularity in recent years. But few people think to stop and consult their dentist or health professional before getting pierced.
Tongue piercings can have a measurable impact on dental health. Here are some of the health risks and potential complications to learn before getting an oral piercing.
Types of oral piercings
The most common oral piercing is the midline tongue piercing. The tongue can also be pierced twice, in symmetrical vertical lines, known as “venom Bites.” The tip of the tongue can even be pierced horizontally using a curved barbell. Both the upper and lower frenulum are popular locations, as is a “labret” piercing, which is done under the bottom lip. The philtrum and various places on the lips can be pierced to mimic different types of animal bites, such as the “spider bite” and “snake bite.”
Each of these locations offers a slightly different set of oral health risks, as well as potential complications from the piercing process. These can include:
- Hypersalivation and drooling
- Nerve damage
- Allergic reaction
- Difficulty speaking or swallowing
- Airway obstruction
- Excess bleeding
- A bifid or cleft tongue
Once the initial wound has healed, people with oral piercings still face multiple long-term health risks. These can include:
Playing with the mouth jewelry, clicking it back and forth across the teeth, or accidentally biting down on it while chewing can cause cracked or chipped teeth and exposed nerves. Fillings are at risk of being damaged, as well. Biting down hard enough on the fixture can even break a tooth completely. Having a hard metal object constantly scraping up against the enamel can cause it to wear or break, resulting in caries forming and further tooth decay.
If a piercing is placed too close to the gums, the constant irritation can cause gum regression. Studies have found that 44% of people with oral piercings experience gum regression, while only 7% of people without oral piercings are likely to suffer from it. In some cases, a gum graft may need to be performed in order to save the tooth. If left untreated the regression can become so severe that the tooth may fall out.
Along with generalized gingivitis, those with oral piercings have a higher chance of developing gum disease. The mouth is the gateway for most pathogenic bacteria that cause damage to our health. Chronic inflammation is the cornerstone of many different and severe autoimmune diseases. A condition as simple as gingivitis can have major implications further down the road if left untreated. Stopping gum disease is not just for oral health, but for overall health and longevity.
Diastema can form when there is constant pressure on the teeth from the piercing or by constantly playing with the jewelry in the same way. This results in a gradual shifting of the natural position of the tooth. The most common diastema that occurs is a midline gap between the two front top or bottom incisors, which requires expensive and lengthy orthodontic treatment to correct.
People who have moderate- to high-risk cardiac conditions can be in serious peril from their oral piercings. The holes that piercings make provide an express portal for bacteria to enter the bloodstream and travel directly to the heart. Bacteria can settle on the heart valves and cause inflammation of the heart. This inflammation can lead to major illness and possibly permanent heart damage. There is also a considerable risk of local and systemic infections that can expose the body to pathogens such as hepatitis B and C, the herpes simplex viruses, and even HIV.
Tips to avoid oral health issues
Those with oral piercings who are fully aware of the health risks but still wish to keep their piercings can take several steps to possibly avoid some of the negative effects.
- Keep the piercing site as clean as possible. Rinse the mouth after every meal to remove any leftover debris and gargle twice daily with an antimicrobial rinse.
- Try to avoid playing with or clicking the jewelry and choose lightweight or polymer jewelry to minimize damage to the teeth.
- Periodically check the tightness of the fixtures so there is less risk of breaking or swallowing the pieces.
- If playing sports, remove the jewelry or wear protective mouth guards.
- Practice good oral hygiene, brushing and flossing twice daily.
- Keep regular appointments for teeth cleanings and checkups.
- Inform a doctor or dentist at the first signs of redness, swelling, or infection.
- Using clean hands, occasionally remove the piercing to give the gums and mouth cavity a rest from irritation.
A note to dental professionals: Educating your patients on the potential health risks involved with piercings may help stem those risks. Dental professionals can help by making their patients and communities aware of these dangers.