A long history of piercing trends and traditions

Body piercings are one of today’s popular forms of self-expression, but bedazzling ourselves with piercings and jewelry is hardly a new trend. A testament to the fact that everything old is new again, chandelier-style earrings were especially popular in the 18th century and Otzi the Iceman, one of the oldest mummies ever discovered, had stretched ear lobes.

The practice of nose piercing dates back over 4000 years, originating in the Middle East. This tradition migrated to India during the 1500s and finally reached Western civilization by the 20th century. But just because body piercing has been around for ages — only recently becoming socially acceptable in the Western world — doesn’t mean the piercing process is safe.

A 2010 Pew survey found that nearly 25% of teenagers have a body piercing somewhere other than the earlobe. About 1 in 3 of these piercings end up having a complication. Major complications are reported less than 1% of the time, and minor infection accounts for the majority of these cases.

Are oral piercings bad for your teeth?

Lip and tongue piercings can be dangerous for oral health, especially without proper home care. From chipped and cracked teeth to gum recession, the risks of oral piercings can vary depending on a few things. To start, the status of your oral health prior to the piercing. If you already suffer from gum recession or tooth decay, oral piercings can worsen these conditions.

Another big factor is how often someone fiddles with their oral piercing. People who have tongue piercings tend to play with the piercing and/or push the piercing to the teeth. This increases the likelihood of chipped or cracked teeth.

Before you commit to a new oral piercing — whether it be lip, tongue, or cheek — be sure to consider the risks associated with the piercing. The following possible risks are the most common, but everyone’s personal risk list will vary depending on lifestyle and habits.

10 risks you should know before getting an oral piercing

  1. Infection, pain, and swelling. As with any piercing, infection is always a risk and pain and swelling are almost guaranteed. An infection can quickly become life-threatening if not treated promptly. It’s also possible for a piercing to cause your tongue to swell, potentially blocking your airway.
  2. Damage to gums, teeth, and fillings. Fiddling with an oral piercing can injure the gums and lead to cracked, scratched, chipped, or sensitive teeth. Oral piercings can also damage fillings.
  3. Tearing accidents. One of the biggest risks you undertake with oral piercings is an unwanted removal of the piercing during an accident that causes the mouth tissue to tear.
  4. Hypersensitivity to metals. It is also a possibility that your body will reject the metal or have an allergic reaction.
  5. Blood-borne diseases. According to the National Institutes of Health, it is possible to contract hepatitis B, C, D, and G from an unsanitized piercing process.
  6. Nerve damage. After a piercing, you may experience a numb tongue that is caused by nerve damage. This is usually temporary but in some cases, the numbness never goes away. The injured nerve may affect your sense of taste, or how you move your mouth.
  7. Excessive drooling. Your tongue piercing can increase saliva production, causing unwanted drool.
  8. Dental appointment difficulties. An oral piercing can get in the way of dental care by blocking X-rays.
  9. Endocarditis. Oral piercings carry a risk of endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart valves or tissues. The piercing site provides an opportunity for oral bacteria to enter the bloodstream, where they can travel to the heart.
  10. Keloid formation. Keloids are little bumps that occur around the site of a piercing caused by excess scar tissue, usually on the entrance or exit of the piercing.

The vast amounts of bacteria in the mouth facilitate the risk of infection, but the infection rate for oral piercings is surprisingly low compared to other body piercings. Oral rinses like Listerine or nonprescription cleansers may be recommended to prevent infection after an oral piercing.

Ludwig’s angina is a skin infection that occurs underneath the tongue on the floor of the mouth. This bacterial infection often occurs after a tooth abscess, which is a collection of pus in the center of a tooth. It can also follow other mouth infections or injuries, like an oral piercing. Ludwig’s angina is rarely caused by oral piercings, but this rapidly spreading oral cellulitis has been reported as a complication of tongue piercing.

There are other risks associated with oral piercings that may not be considered dangerous but are certainly inconvenient. This includes difficulty eating, exercising, or playing certain sports. With proper home care, your likelihood of a complication or infection goes down a lot. That said, here are some quick tips to keep in mind when caring for a new piercing.

  • There is such a thing as over-cleaning. Follow your cleaning directions carefully.
  • After you smoke, eat, or drink anything other than water, swish salt water for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Use a new toothbrush after you get the piercing.
  • Make temporary lifestyle changes during the healing process (ex: avoid chewing on nonfood items such as gum, tobacco, fingernails, or glasses).

Read and understand the dangers or difficulties that may come with any oral piercing you are considering. Sure you can always take a piercing out, but scarring, bumps, depressions, or holes may remain even after it’s been removed.

Once you’ve read all the risks, if you still decide to get an oral piercing, be sure the procedure is done by a professional with sterile instruments. You should also consult with your dentist before getting pierced to learn proper aftercare and maintenance that will help you reduce your risk of infection or complication.

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