Piercing the tongue is a traumatic procedure that can lead to serious and possibly life-threatening infections. For the first few days, the normal pain and swelling is difficult to differentiate from any signs of infection. If you have difficulty breathing, however, or any other symptoms that match those of an infected tongue piercing, seek medical attention immediately.
What Causes Infections?
There is a large amount of bacteria and other microorganisms in the mouth, and according to a report in The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice (IJAHSP), when the tongue is pierced, microorganisms can enter the wound and cause infection at the piercing site. From the piercing site, the infection can then enter the bloodstream, causing heat and redness beyond the wound, swelling of the lymph nodes, fever and other serious side effects. The report states that lightly brushing the pierced area with a new, soft-bristled toothbrush, such as Colgate® Slim Soft™, helps prevent bacteria from entering the wound.
Healing After Tongue Piercing
After a tongue piercing, normal healing symptoms and healing times vary from person to person. Pain from a tongue piercing lasts up to one month, according to University of Wisconsin Whitewater. The Association of Professional Piercers lists normal healing symptoms as several days of uncomfortable aching, pinching or tightness in the area of the wound, swelling, bleeding and a yellowish, liquid secretion. Usually, a tongue piercing heals in four to six weeks, according to the IJAHSP.
Signs of an infected tongue piercing include healing symptoms that persist longer than normal and other indicative symptoms. The American Dental Association (ADA) Mouth Healthy site advises that medical attention should be sought immediately if there is pain and swelling beyond the normal range. Other symptoms of infection include fever, chills, shaking or red streaks around the piercing wound. The IJAHSP also mentions swollen lymph nodes and unusual discharge as signs of infection.
Untreated Tongue Infections
An untreated infected tongue piercing leads to severe consequences, including death. An ISRN Dentistry article states that, as well as local infections in the tongue, infections that enter the bloodstream can cause heart problems and brain abscesses. Infectious diseases that could enter through the piercing wound include HIV, tetanus, tuberculosis and hepatitis B, C, D and G.
Treating Infected Piercings
Donna I. Meltzer, M.D., writing in American Family Physician, says keeping the airway open is an important concern when treating an infected tongue piercing. The tongue jewelry is removed if possible, and systemic antibiotics are then administered. It may also be necessary to surgically drain abscesses that have formed.
Tongue piercings carry other risks besides the danger of infection. The IJAHSP lists fractured teeth, nerve damage, speech impediments, allergic reactions to tongue jewelry, scar tissue, prolonged bleeding and disease transmission as some additional risks. When factoring in all of these risks, having your tongue pierced is a decision that must be considered seriously, and close attention must be paid to symptoms of infection afterward.