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Watch your tongue

Because of its association with youth and a sub-culture of rebellion and toughness, tongue piercings - usually with a barbell-shaped metal stud or a ring - have caught the imagination of young people. Among the most serious risks are allergic reactions, bleeding, damage to nerves or teeth and infections, including some life-threatening ones such as hepatitis, HIV, tetanus and bacteriaemia.

health and fitness Updated: Dec 12, 2010 00:56 IST

Because of its association with youth and a sub-culture of rebellion and toughness, tongue piercings - usually with a barbell-shaped metal stud or a ring - have caught the imagination of young people. Among the most serious risks are allergic reactions, bleeding, damage to nerves or teeth and infections, including some life-threatening ones such as hepatitis, HIV, tetanus and bacteriaemia.

Tongue piercing causes gaps between teeth and crooked teeth. Chipped and broken teeth and gum recession are among the other adverse reactions to tongue piercings, found research conducted in Loma Linda University, California, and Ohio State University in the US. Over time, gum recession can cause hypersensitivity to cold and hot foods, shaky teeth and tooth loss.

Mouth piercings and smoking combined can cause a mouthful of trouble. As a smoker, you are more likely than nonsmokers to have tartar (hardened deposits) on your teeth, deep pockets between your teeth and gums, and loss of the bone and tissue that support the teeth. Combine these problems with gum recession from tongue piercing and you are on your way to having a serious infection called periodontal disease.

A study of 4,500 adolescents aged between 12 and 21 showed that teens with body piercings were more likely to smoke cigarettes, use drugs and exhibit other types of unhealthy behaviour, reported researchers from the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York.

Given these risks, discussing your oral health with your dentist before opting for a mouth piercing is strongly recommended.

In addition to gum and teeth problems, tongue piercings may cause other complications such as swelling of the tongue, difficulties in chewing or swallowing, speech problems, increase of saliva flow, localised tissue overgrowth and metal hypersensitivity. The piercings can accumulate food and debris that can cause localised infections and lead to bad-breath.

Several cases of nerve damage with permanent numbness associated with lips and tongue have also been reported. Piercings done by unqualified people could damage major blood vessels causing uncontrollable bleeding and potentially life-threatening infections. The mouth is the ideal environment for bacteria - warm and moist - and the use of non-sterile instrumentation is dangerous.

Since metal allergies are also common, only jewellery-grade metals such as gold, sterling silver and stainless steel should be considered for long-term use in the mouth.

Dr Kakar is a consultant orthodontist at Apollo Hospital and runs a private clinic