Tattoos and Piercings

I grew up in an age when tattoos were the stuff of drunken sailors and Marx Brothers movies.  Now, of course, they are nearly everywhere–among the kids and, not infrequently, the parents. I admit, I still don’t get it, but on the other hand, who cares about the style opinions of a crotchedy old geezer like me? So I’d like to discuss some safety issues with tattoos and piercings.  A recent article in my journal Pediatric News reviewed an excellent  presentation by Dr. Cora Breuner of Seattle Children’s Hospital which I will summarize.

Tattoos have been around for >4,000 years, body piercings since at least 700 AD. As above, the style has really taken off in popularity.  38% of 18-29 year olds have them (72% of tattoos are on non-visible body areas) and 23% have body piercings.  Tattoo recipients have increased by 20% from 2012-16 alone, it’s now a $1.65 billion industry. Most people (86%) like their choice–it makes them feel happy, attractive, sexy, rebellious, unique–even athletic or spiritual.  Who am I to argue?

The main risk of tattoos is skin infection. Given the nature of tattoos, those infections can get quite deep and pretty unpleasant. However, by all accounts, the incidence is fortunately low. Michigan is one of the few states that maintains accurate records of tattoo infection and found only 18 in 2010.  Hepatitis C is some concern as well; this is a more serious problem but more difficult to track, due to the relatively high incidence of tattoo recipients who may engage in risky behaviors like IV drug use and unprotected and more aggressive sex practices. Obviously, sticking with licensed shops compared to illegal operations is better.  In NJ, shops must be licensed by the Health Dept. and artists must be OSHA certified in handling blood born pathogens. <18 year olds need parental permission for tattoos or piercings.

With piercings the risks are more varied.  Bleeding is uncommon with ears and noses but more so with tongue, uvula, nipples, and genitalia as these areas take longer to heal (3-9 mo compared to a few weeks for ears). Dental complaints can occur with piercings in the mouth–bleeding, chipped teeth, receding gums.  This is more common with “barbell” piercings (47% had some tooth chipping after 4 years–people tend to bite down on them).  Hepatitis C appears to be a greater risk with piercings compared to tattoos.

Historically, tattoos and piercings were problematic as young people grew and entered the employment pool, but my general feeling now is that that concern is passe. I don’t think anybody pays too much attention anymore. At any rate, if the involved body part is hidden, nobody notices anyway.

I think it is reasonable for parents to review these risks with teens who express interest in tattoos and piercings.  Of course insist on patronizing only reputable establishments; I think it’s fair for parents who object to require the kids to pay for it themselves.  But don’t force your choice on them–their lives, their bodies, their decisions, Mom and Dad.

Send along questions or comments, and thanks for following.

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