CHAPEL HILL, NC (WFMY)--It's back to school season and with a new school year comes new temptations for young students. Among them: Oral piercing.

"Many teenagers, especially those entering a new school or social environment, seek acceptance," says Dr. Nona Breeland, a Chapel Hill endodontist and former president of the N.C. Dental Society.

"Some young people resort to popular but potentially dangerous practices, including piercing of the tongue, lips, cheek or uvula (the tiny tissue that hangs down in the back of the throat)."

Some suffer no ill effects, but piercing carries huge risk. "The mouth's moist environment is home to large numbers of breeding bacteria and is an ideal place for infection," says Dr. Breeland.

"Oral piercing carries a risk of endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart valves or tissues. Bacteria can enter the bloodstream through the piercing site in the mouth and travel to the heart, where it can establish itself.," warns Dr. Breeland. "This is a risk for people with heart conditions and, in the worst of cases, can result in death."

An oral piercing also can interfere with speech, chewing or swallowing. That may seem like a mere inconvenience until you consider that it may cause:

• Excessive drooling
• Infection, pain and swelling
• Chipped or cracked teeth
• Injuries to the gums
• Damage to fillings
• Increased saliva flow
• Hypersensitivity to metals
• Scar tissue
• Nerve damage

"Harmful effects can occur during the piercing, soon after, or even long
after the procedure," says Dr. Breeland.

It's also possible to puncture a nerve during a tongue piercing. "If this happens, patients may experience a numb tongue. This nerve damage may be temporary, but can be permanent. The injured nerve may affect your sense of taste or how you move your mouth. And damage to the tongue's blood vessels can cause serious blood loss."

In addition, piercing jewelry can sometimes cause allergic responses to the pierced site.

"If an individual has a piercing, he or she should consult a dentist and practice good oral hygiene to reduce the presence of bacteria and infections in the mouth," says Dr. Breeland. "Regular dental checkups are a must."

Dr. Breeland says that dentists in North Carolina see serious oral problems caused by piercing in free Missions of Mercy (NCMOM) dental clinics put on by volunteer dentists who treat the underserved. "Unfortunately, many patients who come to MOM events, especially the working poor with limited or no access to regular dental care, end up with runaway infections in the mouth that have spread to other parts of the body."

The best advice, says Dr. Breeland, is to avoid oral piercing in the first place. "Otherwise, it poses a tremendous risk which is a tough trade-off to be cool or appear fashionable."

(For additional information on oral piercing, visitwww.ncdental.org or www.ada.org)

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