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Dental health and oral piercings

Tongue piercings, lip or cheek piercings have become fashionable, but they are not without risks to oral health.

A pierced tongue can take up to two months to heal, and during that time problems can occur, including:

  • Infections. The wound created by piercing, the vast amount of bacteria in the mouth and the introduction of additional bacteria from handling the jewellery all work to increase the risk of infections.
  • Transmission of diseases. Oral piercing is a potential risk factor for the transmission of herpes simplex virus and hepatitis B and C.
  • Endocarditis. Because of the wound created by the piercing, there's a chance that bacteria could enter the bloodstream and lead to the development of endocarditis - an inflammation of the heart or its valves - in certain people with underlying (and often undiagnosed and symptomless) heart problems.
  • Nerve damage/prolonged bleeding. Numbness or loss of sensation at the site of the piercing or movement problems (for pierced tongues) can occur if nerves have been damaged. If blood vessels are punctured, prolonged bleeding can occur. Tongue swelling following piercing can be severe enough to block the airway and make breathing difficult.
  • Gum disease. People with oral piercings - especially long-stem tongue jewellery (barbells) - have a greater risk of gum disease than those without oral piercings. The jewellery can come into contact with gum tissue causing injury as well as a recession of the gum tissue, which can lead to loose teeth and tooth loss.
  • Damage to teeth. Teeth that come into contact with mouth jewellery can chip or crack. One study in a dental journal reported that 47% of people wearing barbell tongue jewellery for four or more years had at least one chipped tooth.
  • Difficulties in daily oral functions. Tongue piercing can result in difficulty chewing and swallowing food and speaking clearly. This is because the jewellery stimulates an excessive production of saliva. Temporary or permanent drooling is another consequence of increased saliva production. Taste can also be altered.
  • Allergic reaction to metal. A hypersensitivity reaction - called allergic contact dermatitis - to the metal in the jewellery can occur in susceptible people.
  • Jewellery aspiration. Jewellery that becomes loose in the mouth can become a choking hazard and, if swallowed, can result in injury to the digestive track or lungs.
  • If you have decided to go through with the oral piercing procedure despite these risks, consider the following tips when looking for an oral piercing studio.
  • Ask friends who have had their tongue, lips or cheeks pierced - and have suffered no ill consequences - to recommend the name of the studio they visited.
  • Visit the studio. Does the studio have a clean appearance, especially the area where the piercing is done? Ask if they use hospital-grade autoclaves for sterilisation and/or use disposable instruments. Does the staff use disposable gloves?
  • Ask to see the studio's health certificates.
  • Are all the needles, as well as the studs, hoops and barbells, kept in sterile packaging?
  • Are all staff members involved in the piercings vaccinated against hepatitis B? They should be.

If the staff is not friendly or willing to answer all of your questions, consider finding another piercing studio.

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