Conference Coverage

Adolescents should know risks of tattoos and piercings



NEW ORLEANS – It wasn’t until her teenage daughter wanted to get her belly button pierced that Cora Breuner, MD, became interested in the safety of tattoos and piercings for adolescents.

Dr. Cora C. Breuner, chairperson of the AAP Committee on Adolescence

Dr. Cora C. Breuner

“You’re a pediatrician,” her daughter said. “Where should I go? Should I get this done?” Although Dr. Breuner didn’t want her daughter to get the piercing, she knew saying “no” wasn’t likely to stop her teenager any more than it would another adolescent, so she looked to the medical literature … and didn’t find much.

“I couldn’t find an article summarizing complication rates or just about the legality of it or other issues around tattooing and piercing,” said Dr. Breuner a professor of pediatrics at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington, also in Seattle. So she and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Adolescent Health did the work themselves and wrote one.

Now she recommends that all health care workers treating children ask their adolescent patients about tattoos and piercings at every health care visit. “I want to make sure that you are talking to your teenagers about this,” she told attendees at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. In her presentation, she focused on knowing the legal age of consent for body modifications and what to watch for in terms of complications.

Tattoos growing in popularity

More than a third (38%) of people aged 18-29 years have at least one tattoo, according to a Pew Research Center report Dr. Breuner cited, and 23% had piercings somewhere on their body besides their ears. In fact, Americans spend about $1.65 billion on tattoos each year.

Most of the people with tattoos (72%), however, had them in places that were covered and not visible, reinforcing the need to ask about them. The popularity of tattoos has been increasing in general, Dr. Breuner noted. In just the 4 years from 2012 to 2016, the prevalence of U.S. adults with at least one tattoo increased 20%.

And people don’t appear to be sorry to have them. According to a Harris Poll that Dr. Breuner cited, 86% of respondents in 2012 did not regret getting their tattoo, and respondents listed a number of feelings they associated with their tattoos: feeling sexy, rebellious, attractive, strong, spiritual, healthier, intelligent, and athletic.

Although the techniques for tattooing have changed over the years since the first documented ones in 4,000 B.C., the basic concept of injecting ink into the dermis hasn’t changed much. By injecting the ink below the epidermis, the ink remains visible for the rest of a person’s life.

Courtesy Annie Fulton

The laws for tattoos vary by state, so you need to check the laws where they live. Not much data exist on infections and complaints, but data from the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services suggests the infection rate – at least those infections reported – is low while the rate of illegally operating facilities is a bigger risk. Local health districts in Michigan have received reports of only 18 infections since 2010, but they’ve received 85 reports of illegal operations and 69 reports of social media parties centered on all attendees getting a tattoo.

Risks of tattoos

The biggest concern for adolescents is ensuring they understand the risks of tattoos and piercings and what to look for. One risk for tattoos is hepatitis C. However, the studies on the risk of contracting hepatitis C from tattooing are confounded by the fact that many people getting tattoos also may be engaging in other risky behaviors, such as intravenous drug use or risky sexual behaviors. Still, some research suggests that “commercially acquired tattoos accounted for more than twice as many infections as injection-drug use,” Dr. Breuner said.

Another risk is tattoo-associated bacterial skin infections (Clin Infect Dis. 2019 Aug 30;69[6]:949-55; MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2012 Aug 24;61[33]:653-6).

Risks of body piercing

Although body piercing doesn’t date back quite as far as tattoos – about 700 A.D. – its history remains long. Research suggests the top reason people get body piercings is simply liking the way it looks, as 77% of respondents reported in one study (J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2007 Oct;107[10]:432-8). Other reasons including looking fashionable, catching attention, feeling different, making a personal statement, being daring, fitting in, pressuring from peers, and defying parents.

The most serious potential complication from piercings is gangrene, but the most common is infection. Other possible complications include an allergic reaction to the metal used, a bleeding complication (estimated in 1 of 10), a scar or site reaction (estimated in 1 of 15), or, much less commonly, toxic shock syndrome. In some areas, there’s a risk of nerve damage if the nerve is pierced, such as in the eyebrow or in the bridge of the nose.

Teens particularly should be aware of the average time it takes for a piercing to heal, depending on where they get it. A navel piercing, for example, can take up to 9 months to heal. Others with long healing times include the penis (3-9 months), labia majora (2-4 months), nipple (2-4 months), and scrotum (2-3 months). Other non-ear regions range from 2 to 8 weeks.

Bleeding definitely is a risk for piercings, Dr. Breuner said, especially now that so many teens are piercing body parts besides their ears. “The one I found most disturbing was that of the uvula,” she said. Bleeding risks tend to be low with ear and nose piercings, but the risk increases with the tongue, uvula, navel, nipples, and genitalia.

Another risk of mouth piercings, particularly tongue piercing, is damage to the teeth and gums, Dr. Breuner said. Barbells, the most popular type of mouth piercing, can lead to receding gums and chipped teeth with extended wear, especially because people wearing them have a tendency to frequently bite down on them.

One study found that half the participants who wore a long barbell piercing (1.59 cm or longer) for at least 2 years had lingual recession on their mandibular central incisors (J Periodontol. 2002 Mar;73[3]:289-97). Among those with a tongue piercing of at least 4 years, 47% had tooth chipping on their molars and premolars.

Another study found gingival recession was 11 times more likely among people with tongue piercings than without (J Clin Periodontol. 2010 Aug 1;37(8):712-8). Gingival recession also is a risk with lip piercings, but the risk is greater with tongue piercing, and only tongue piercings have been associated with tooth injuries (Aust Dent J. 2012 Mar;57[1]:71-8; Int J Dent Hyg. 2016 Feb;14[1]:62-73).

Hepatitis C also is a concern with body piercing. According to a systematic review of 12 studies, body piercing was a risk factor for hepatitis C infection in the majority of them (Am J Infect Control. 2001 Aug;29[4]:271-4).

Counseling adolescents on body modifications

You should ask teens about any tattoos or piercings they have at each visit and ask whether they have any plans to get any. Then you can answer questions about them and ensure the teens are aware of risks, particularly viral and bacterial infections and, with piercing, bleeding.

Beyond the medical risks, it’s important for teens to understand that tattoos have the potential to limit their employment in the future, depending on the job and how visible their tattoo is.

Social acceptance of tattoos and piercings have been increasing, but a survey of nearly 2,700 people conducted by in 2013 found that 76% of respondents believed tattoos and piercings could reduce a job applicant’s chances of being hired.

If you want to learn more specifically about the safest places in your community for tattoos and piercings, Dr. Breuner recommended going out and visiting the shops. Tattoo artists generally are the most knowledgeable people in the community about the risks of their industry and often welcome local physicians who want to learn and see their equipment, she said.

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