Oral Piercings

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A Risky Fashion Option

When it comes to oral piercings, most dental professionals say no. The possible complications or problems one might encounter immediately after an oral piercing are similar to what youd expect after any puncture wound or incision, says Dr. Jerry Smith, a dentist in Thunder Bay, Ont., and ODA President-Elect (2013-14). Namely, pain, swelling and infection, as well as scar tissue formation. However, secondary infections following oral piercings can be quite serious, he says, especially ones involving the tongue. Dr. Smith has had patients who have required surgery to correct the damage done. “In some cases, the damage wasnt reversible or completely repairable,” he says.

What, exactly, is an oral piercing?

Oral piercings usually consist of a barbell through the tongue or labret (the space between the lower lip and chin). Other common oral piercing locations include the lips, uvula and cheeks. The jewelry comes in different styles, including labret studs, barbells and rings. They can be made of stainless steel, gold, titanium, plastic or nickel.

What problems can an oral piercing cause?

Complications vary depending on the location of the piercing, says Dr. Ian McConnachie, a pediatric dentist in Ottawa and an ODA Past President, who regularly treats patients with oral piercings. For piercings through the tongue or lip, or below the tongue, theres a risk of teeth chipping from the stud at the end of the device. Piercings through the floor of the mouth below the tongue or through the tongue have the highest risk of developing into a serious infection. “These areas have a high blood supply and theyre located close to major structures such as the airway that can become obstructed as a result of infection,” says Dr. McConnachie. “While rare, this can be life-threatening.”

There is also a risk of nerve or muscle damage from the piercing. “While this is not usually serious or permanent, its a little disconcerting for the patient,” says Dr. Rick Caldwell, a dentist in New Liskeard, Ont., and President of the ODA (2013-14). “There can also be damage to the gum tissue, particularly with certain labrets,” he adds. The jewelry can cause gums to recede and leave the tooth root more vulnerable to decay and periodontal disease. Not a pretty picture. Especially when you factor in other possible complications such as bad breath, drooling and problems with chewing and swallowing.

Dr. Caldwell says oral piercings have become increasingly less popular with his teen patients. “A particularly bad infection as the result of a tongue piercing was in the news a few years ago. That may have dampened the enthusiasm of some youth,” he says.

What are the best precautionary measures?

Dr. McConnachie encourages anyone who is considering a piercing either close to or within the mouth to discuss the matter with a dentist first and to keep these safety measures in mind.

HIGHLIGHTS


Good to know:
Plastic jewelry is less damaging than metal, and nickel may cause allergic reactions.

Good to know:
Constantly playing with and manipulating jewelry once it’s been placed in the mouth increases the chances of getting an infection.

Good to know:
Check the tightness of your jewelry periodically (with clean hands) to prevent swallowing or choking if the jewelry becomes dislodged.