Piercings are nothing new. We’ve all seen them on ears, eyelids, belly buttons, lips, and tongues, but not all piercings carry the same dangers. Oral piercings come with their own unique set of risks because of the anatomy of the oral tissues and the bacteria that inhabit them. Before you take the plunge, get familiar with the possible risks. Well prepared is well protected!
What are Oral Piercings?
Oral piercings are any of the piercings of the lip, cheek, frenum, uvula (yes, you read that right), or tongue. Highly popular, they have been around in some form for thousands of years. Today, in western culture, they are usually made of titanium, surgical steel, or gold and come in ring or barbell form.
Let’s talk a little bit about popular locations for piercings!
- Tongue – the most popular place to pierce, and the highest risk of nerve damage and infection.
- Dorso-ventral piercing – goes through the top of the tongue emerges under the tongue.
- Dorsolateral – More risk of hitting major vessels. Piercing extends through width of tongue from side to side with barbells sitting on surface of tongue
- Uses titanium or surgical steel
- Frenum – tissue connecting tongue to floor of mouth
- Uvula – lymphatic tissue that dangles from the back of the soft palate. The highest risk of choking or swallowing during placement or removal, and can interfere with swallowing.
- Lips – “labrette” studs or rings pierce lip or the mental fold (little line above chin)
- Cheeks (Dimple) – labrette studs are inserted through the cheek with one side inside the oral cavity and the other outside.
What are the Risks of Oral Piercings?
The mouth is a uniquely challenging place to pierce. There is a lot of anatomy to think about, not to mention an enormous blood supply. We’ve all had a bloody lip, before–things in the mouth bleed. A lot. Piercings in and around the mouth carry a built-in risk of bleeding, which can be serious. Hit a vessel in the tongue and you could be in for a fun game of squash the tongue. But bleeding isn’t the only risk. Some risks to consider when you are making the decision to get an oral piercing:
- Swelling – oral tissues swell. Severe swelling can close off the airway, which is a life-threatening situation
- Nerve damage – if nerve is hit during piercing
- Tooth damage
- Chipped teeth – due to continuous contact of jewelry against teeth.
- Cracked teeth – due to biting of jewelry. We’ve all bitten our tongues. Imagine if it had a titanium post in it.
- Infection – the mouth is full of bacteria. Piercings can become locally infected and bacteria can also enter the bloodstream affecting the rest of the body.
- Loss of taste
- Choking – removable components can be aspirated
- Interference with daily function including
- Swallowing – improperly placed tongue rings and uvula rings can alter swallowing
- Talking – improperly placed tongue rings can alter speech patterns
- Gum recession – lip and tongue rings can damage the fragile tissues of the gum leading to recession and the need for grafting.
- Damage to fillings
- Scarring – lips and cheeks
- Damage to salivary glands – cheek piercing can damage the parotid salivary gland, the same gland that swells in mumps. When this happens,
How Does it Work?
Most oral piercings are performed in piercing shops. A Boring needle will pierce the tissue, then a post of the same size (usually 16 – 18 gauge x 1.6mm for a tongue) is inserted, pushing the needle out.The post will be made of surgical steel or titanium.
How Can I Minimize Complications of Oral Piercing?
Make sure you go to a licensed shop. Ask questions. Make sure your licensed piercer uses sterile, unused equipment and adheres to all OSHA standards.
- Excellent oral hygiene – clean your mouth thoroughly before your appointment and rinse with a non-alcoholic mouthwash 3 – 4 times a day afterward
- Ice swelling. Allow ice to melt on your tongue for tongue piercings.
- Sleep with head elevated
- See if you can get a material like BioPlast, which is hypoallergenic and softer than titanium
- No Smoking
- Do not play with jewelry using your tongue
- Remove your jewelry for sports
- Avoid saliva exchange for 3 weeks
- No kissing
- No sharing cups, forks, straws
- Use balls made of polymer rather than metal for tongue piercings to reduce risk of tooth fracture
- Tighten jewelry daily to reduce risk of choking
- Wear a smaller ball on the underside of tongue to reduce gum damage
- Keep fingers and foreign objects out of mouth during healing
- Update tetanus and hepatitis vaccines
Bottom Line on Oral Piercings
Oral piercings are an expression of individuality–but they come with risks. Talk to your dentist about how to minimize your risk to your teeth and oral tissues. They are well trained to spot early signs of damage and to answer any questions you may have about the long-term effects of piercing on your oral health.