Article Of The Month

(Published in Time Magazine, Personal Time/Your Health, August 31, 1998, Vol. 152 No. 9)

A Risky Fashion

Piercing your tongue leaves you vulnerable to cracked teeth, infection and other bodily danger


What do you do after you've pierced your ears, your eyebrows, your lips, your nose and your navel? Why, pierce your tongue, of course! Especially if you're a Spice Girl--or a twentysomething genetically programmed to drive your parents crazy. But lately, doctors have started to be worried as well. In the past 18 months, three different dental journals have published articles about the untoward medical and dental effects of tongue piercing. As you might expect, the dentists are against it.

For starters, the mouth is full of all kinds of bacteria, so piercing any part of it can trigger some rather nasty infections. There is also the risk of contracting hepatitis or HIV from an unsterilized needle, as there is with any piercing or tattooing. And dentists are starting to see a lot of problems they never expected: broken teeth, blood clots, patients choking on loose jewelry. It's a wonder no one has died.

Some nearly have. Take the case of the 25-year-old woman from Cheltenham, England, who developed a near fatal infection four days after her tongue was pierced. Most tongues swell--often as much as double their normal size--when they're punctured; hers grew so fat it became trapped against the roof of her mouth and pushed her epiglottis, a flap of tissue that keeps food from entering the lungs, against the back of her throat, cutting off her air supply. When antibiotics failed to reverse the swelling, oral surgeons had to force a tube through her nose and down her throat so she could breathe.

The problems of tongue piercees are rarely so severe. More commonly, patients come in complaining that they have cracked their teeth against the rings and barbells in their tongues. Dentists Wayne Maibaum and Vincent Margherita of Warwick, N.Y., report the case of a 19-year-old woman who got into the habit of idly biting her metal tongue bar and one day bit down on it so hard she chipped off a piece of one of her molars. "In that particular case, all I had to do was grind the tooth and smooth it down," Maibaum says. "But if the fracture had gone down into the pulp, she would have needed root canal and might have lost the tooth."

There's also the very real risk of choking. Most tongue jewelry consists of two parts that are screwed together. But what's screwed together can, and often does, come apart. Dentists Shelia Price and Maurice Lewis of Morgantown, W.Va., tell the story of a 20-year-old patient who pierced not only his tongue but also his uvula, the flap of skin that hangs down at the back of the mouth. "That's pretty rare," Price notes, "primarily because of the gag reflex." At any rate, the hoop in the man's uvula came undone and fell into his throat. Fortunately, he swallowed it instead of aspirating it into his lungs, where it could have caused serious damage. After that he decided to stop putting anything in his uvula. But he's keeping the little steel barbell affixed to his tongue. At least until the next ornamental outrage comes along.

Even if you've already pierced your tongue, you can still come to your senses. The body has an amazing ability to heal itself. If you would just leave your jewelry on your nightstand, the hole in your tongue will eventually close. But if you absolutely must persist in lingual lunacy, at the very least keep your tongue jewelry clean, don't wear it at night or while you're eating, and, whatever you do, don't bite down!

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