Is Tongue Piercing Safe?

I am 16 years old and I want to get my tongue pierced. My doctor said it may cause an infection. What do dentists think about this?

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You are very wise to fully investigate tongue piercing before you make your final decision. I cannot speak for all dentists on this topic but I will share some things that I have learned about tongue, lip and cheek piercing. Oral body art has existed for thousands of years in some cultures but it is a relatively recent fashion in Western society.

Any time jewelry is inserted through the oral soft tissues, infection is a real concern. If the metal is not pure, allergic reactions may also occur. The barbell end of the jewelry pierced through the tongue, lip, or cheek can be removed but it is usually worn permanently. This can lead to chipped teeth, difficulty eating, and difficulty speaking clearly. It is not uncommon for the tongue to swell up for several days after the piercing procedure. One report described a case where the swelling partially blocked the patient's trachea (wind pipe) and caused serious difficulty breathing! I do not know of any reported cases where the jewelry has broken loose but if this were to happen, it is possible that the object could be swallowed or cause choking. The many nerve endings in the tongue and lip can also make the procedure painful. Remember, even if a local anesthetic is used, you may feel pain after the anesthetic wears off. The tongue also has distinct areas where different taste buds sense spicy, bitter, sweet and other tastes. Some people report that food tastes different after their tongue has been pierced.

In my professional opinion, I think the health risks discussed above outweigh any fashion benefit or political statement that may be achieved by having your tongue pierced. However, this decision is a very personal one that you must make for yourself. After all, it is your tongue, not mine! Educate yourself.

If you do decide to have your tongue pierced, please be sure that it is done at a sterile, reputable, safe establishment. It is important for people with orally pierced tissues to maintain excellent hygiene. Brush your tongue, irrigate the hole with a small stream of water and keep the jewelry meticulously clean. Some people use an ultrasonic cleaner on the ring or barbell jewelry after it is removed from their mouth. If you use a standard jewelry cleaner (not recommended), rinse the jewelry very well before placing it back in your mouth. Many jewelry cleaners are toxic and must not be swallowed! They can also cause severe irritation to oral tissues.

I encourage you to read an excellent article on tongue piercing in Enamel (The California Dental Health Magazine) 1(2):6 (Fall 1996). The articles below are more technically written.

Scully et al., "Tongue Piercing (Oral Body Art)" British Journal of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery (1994) 32(1):37-38.

Chen et al., "Tongue Piercing - A New Fad in Body Art" British Dental Journal (1992) 172(3):87

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