Dental Health: Stick Out Your Tongue and Say – Ouch!

Growing up as a Baby Boomer, I remember our generation being accused of going wild with our socially unacceptable fashion statements. Young men with shoulder-length hair and young women wearing hot pants shocked the nation’s sensibilities.

It was suggested among our parents’ generation that we’d never amount to anything with our rebellious ways. Yet we have – we’re upstanding community members, responsible parents, and even respected professionals such as dentists and oral hygienists.

And, while we thought we’d done it all, it’s come to pass that the now generation – GenX – has set a trend that drops the jaw of even the boldest Baby Boomer.

Picking up where the early Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans left off, GenX has embraced body and oral art such as piercing and tattooing as a way to distinguish them from the establishment.

Why is this mode of identity expression – particularly the pierced tongue – creating such concern among parents and the adults who comprise the American Dental Association? Are we Baby Boomers just a bunch of self-expression hypocrites?

Okay, I for one confess to being squeamish about oral or dental pain. It makes my knees weak just to catch a glimpse of a barbell-impaled tongue in a teenager’s mouth.

In all honesty, though, that’s not the only issue at stake. Today, we know much more about body piercing than the ancients did. Dentists and other health care professionals know that oral piercing is, to borrow an expression, risky business.

In fact, the ADA, a group of dentists that set professional standards for dentists in the United States, is officially against any type of oral piercing.

Tongues are typically pierced by passing a hollow needle through the front third of the tongue, from top to bottom, usually without an anesthetic. The American Dental Association cautions that if a blood vessel is in the path of the needle during the piercing, severe and difficult-to-control bleeding and/or nerve damage can result.

Common symptoms after oral piercing include pain, an increased flow of saliva and injuries to the gum tissue. Swelling is also common and dentists warn that in extreme cases, a severely swollen tongue can actually close off the airway and prevent breathing.

The American Dental Association mentions the potential for infection because every mouth just naturally contains millions of bacteria that could set into the site of the piercing.

Children’s Hospital Boston staff goes further to explain that there are outside infections that can be introduced as well. These infections have names we recognize, such as hepatitis, HIV, tetanus, and yeast. The staff acknowledges that if the piercer washes their hands and uses gloves and sterile equipment, and if the pierced tongue receives proper care, the risk of infection is lowered (but still exists).

According to the dental health professionals at CHB, infections caused by bacteria getting into the puncture of the piercing may also happen later, even after the piercing has healed.

Other risks include Keloids (thick scarring at the piercing site), dental damage (chipped and broken teeth), choking on loose jewelry, and allergic reactions (especially to certain kinds of jewelry).

As a Baby Boomer parent of GenX children my concern lies less with any negative characterization of people with pierced tongues and more with keeping the next generation healthy until they can reach adulthood.

I would advise anyone over the age of eighteen, including my own children, that body piercing is a big decision. I would encourage them to take time to consider the risks, remembering that they can always change their mind or wait if they are not sure.

After understanding the risks, if they do decide to get a piercing, I would stress the importance of selecting a reliable piercer, making sure that they have a certificate on the wall that says the piercer is registered with the APP, a professional organization of piercers that sets safety rules for people who do piercings.

Also, of course they should buy good jewelry, keep the site clean and away from irritating materials, see their dental health professional regularly – and immediately if there are symptoms of an infection!

As a formerly wild and crazy mini skirt wearer now turned responsible yet hip mom, how would I react if I discovered a barbell in the tongue of my child under the age of 18?

Calmly, of course. I would simply hold out my hand in silence and give my child the look indicating my directive to immediately hand over the tongue adornment. Without a cross word spoken, I would toss the offending jewelry as far away as possible from wherever we stood at the time.

For anyone who has wondered, this will solve the mystery of how the fish in the Snake River Hells Canyon recreation area swallowed a barbell in June of 2003.