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Tongue Piercing Not That Risky, But Things Can Go Wrong

It's hard to believe that certain things ever became popular.

Pet rocks, for example.

Shag carpeting.

Sticking a needle through your tongue.

But oral piercing, if not now mainstream, has at least become more common in recent years. According to one survey, 16% of the females and 4% of the males at a New York university had pierced tongues.

The practice doesn't appear to be any more risky than getting an ear pierced. However, if you're going for a hole in your tongue, you might want to be aware of what can go wrong.

The most common problems from oral piercing include excessive bleeding, infection and injuries to the mouth and teeth. Others include swelling, scarring, nerve damage and periodontal disease.

In the survey of New York college students, 6% of those with an oral piercing had some type of problem afterward. This was lower than the problem rates the study found for ear piercing (12%), nipple piercing (21%) or navel piercing (24%).

"Although it is uncommon, a few patients have required a hospital admission and intravenous antibiotics to treat infections of the tongue and the floor of the mouth," says Sidney B. Eisig, DDS.

Also, Dr. Eisig says, "A scar is left in the tongue once the piercing is removed." Dr. Eisig is a professor and director of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine in New York.

There have been several cases of people cracking or chipping teeth with their piercings. One study found that nearly half of people who wore long barbells (about 1.6 centimeters or longer) in their piercings and kept them in for at least four years had some chipping of their back teeth.

Recent studies have demonstrated that the gums inside the front of the mouth are more likely to recede if the tongue is pierced. This is caused by repeatedly pushing the piercing against the front teeth. When gums recede, the bone underneath is reabsorbed by the body. This can loosen the teeth and ultimately cause them to fall out.

Dentists also suggest that a piercing could fracture some types of restorations, such as crowns made of porcelain or porcelain and metal. Some recommend acrylic balls or barbells, rather than metal ones.

Jessica Clendenon first had her tongue pierced when she was 21. Since then, she's removed the barbell twice, allowing her tongue to heal, only to re-pierce it both times. Now, she says, "The third time's the charm. I have no intention of taking this [piercing] out."

Jessica says she's never had an infection from any of her piercings. But then, she followed the after-care directions to the letter.

"For two weeks, I had to rinse with Listerine every time I ate or drank anything. I took a travel-size bottle with me everywhere," she says. "I think it's likely that most people that get infections probably don't take care of themselves afterward."

Along those same lines, she says, "Some people play with [the barbell] or chew on it. It seems to me that's why their teeth crack."

Initially, Jessica did have some swelling, but she says the area was completely healed after about two weeks. After her second piercing, she noticed sores on the gums near her bottom teeth, which led her to remove the barbell. Today, she says, "If my dentist thought [the piercing] was posing a serious problem to my gums and teeth, I would take it out."

Piercings also can interfere with eating and speech. Jessica says she had to "learn to talk all over again, especially Ss and Ts." Now, she says, "Mostly no one can tell I have my tongue pierced. I consider the barbell like any other piece of jewelry, like earrings or a bracelet. "

And what does her dentist think?

"I've had two dentists since I've had [oral piercings] and they aren't thrilled about it," she says. "My last dentist said, 'I guess you don't need me to tell you that I don't like the idea.'"

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