by Kathie Sutin
The popularity of body piercings and body art—tattoos—has risen into the mainstream. But something else is rising with it: the incidence of drug resistant bacterial infections.
If you thought that methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections were something you could only get in a hospital, you might be surprised to learn you can also pick them up while getting a body piercing or a tattoo if sanitary precautions are not taken.
Both instruments and the ink used in tattooing can become contaminated with the blood and bodily fluids of others if they are not kept clean. And that’s just one of the problems. Puncturing the skin and threading it with metal or inking it below the surface present health issues that many teenagers do not understand.
“You have certified inks and you have non-certified inks,” said Anthony Scalzo, M.D., professor of medicine at St. Louis University, pediatric emergency medicine specialist and medical director of Missouri Regional Poison Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis, said. “And then you have inks that are mixed with alcohol or ethylene glycol, which is anti-freeze. These substances can certainly be toxic.”
Dr. Scalzo says he doesn’t believe in tattoos but adds that he’s not judgmental of those who do. “Whatever—to each his own,” he said.
“But I am concerned that you would go to a tattoo artist that is certified and reputable. Since we’ve been experiencing this community-acquired resistant staff, I’ve had several cases of teenagers with really bad infections from tattoos.”
Greater infection threat
The threat of infection is far greater today than it was decades ago, when our dads and grandfathers in the military got tattoos on a whim during duty leaves, Dr. Scalzo said. “Back in those days they got a lot of tattoos. Well, back in those days we didn’t have so many antibiotic resistant bacteria, so this was not so much an issue.”
But today, MRSA infection can be an issue for everyone, Dr. Scalzo said. “Clearly you can get these infections by non-tattooing and non-piercing trauma to the skin—just breaks in the skin and scratches,” he said. Athletes in locker rooms can also be at risk, he added.
Recently Dr. Scalzo treated a young girl with an infection around two earrings. The area was so swollen that the decorative stones and the clasps around them got embedded in her skin, and he had to do minor surgery to remove them.
While infection can occur even after the area around a piercing heals, the highest risk of infection is in the early phase when the skin has been recently punctured, he said.
The issue is not just the infection at that site. “Our skin is our barrier to the outside,” Dr. Scalzo said. Once broken, the entire body is at risk. “In burn units the greatest risk to the patient is infection because that barrier is not intact,” he added.
“Mom, I want a tattoo!”
So what should you do when your child announces she wants a tattoo or a body piercing?
In most states, it is illegal to tattoo or perform a piercing on a minor without parental consent. In many cases, that solves the problem. But that’s not to say the teen can’t find a “backstreet” tattoo artist or someone who will do the piercing.
It’s also not to say that your child will share her plans for “body art” or a piercing with you.
“When body piercings happen, they don’t usually tell their parents,” said Louise Kaufman-Yawitz, LPC, LCSW, a social worker in private practice in St. Louis. “Piercings just kind of show up—as do tattoos.”
If your child shows up with a tattoo, first determine if it’s real, she advises. “Kids have come home with tattoos just trying to goad their parents, and they’re not really tattoos.”
If the child already has the tattoo or body piercing, it’s not going to do any good to argue.
“Parents pretty much freak out when their kids come home with tattoos on them because they can’t really do anything about it. It’s too late at that time,” Kaufman-Yawitz said “But you still want to work with them so they won’t get more.”
Tattoos are especially an issue because they cover wide areas of the body and are hard to remove, whereas a piercing that never becomes infected will likely leave behind only a small scar. Tattoo removal can be attempted with lasers and Intense Pulsed Light Therapy, but the processes are expensive and painful, and sometimes do not completely remove the tattoo while still leaving permanent scars.
That’s all the more reason foryou to keep your parenting style nice and cool when a child says he wants a tattoo. “It’s important for parents not to automatically say, ‘No, you can’t’ or ‘I’m alarmed’ blah, blah, blah,” Kaufman-Yawitz said. “A parent has to stay calm.”
Instead of immediately objecting, ask your child why he wants the tattoo. Talk about what the long-term implications might be—such as how a future employer may view tattoos, Kaufman-Yawitz said.
She also suggests the child get a “temporary” tattoo just to see what it’s like to have one 24/7. If he finds he’s having to cover up the “body art” at certain times, that may give him reason to think about the ramifications. “If you have to worry that you have to cover it up, doesn’t that say something?” Kaufman-Yawitz asked.
Parents who have tattoos themselves may face a tougher time convincing their kids not to get one. But if the parent has a tattoo and regrets it, that’s information to share with the child.
“Let them know when they are of legal age as a parent we can’t stop them from making that choice, but we want them to make the choice with full knowledge and realizing it’s forever,” she said. That can also help the parent down the line if the child eventually regrets his decision and says, “You allowed me to do it so it’s your fault.”
And if your child is legally old enough to get a tattoo or body piercing, and your best efforts fail to dissuade him from getting it, encourage him to have the work done by a certified tattoo artist or body piercer.
Kathie Sutin is an award-winning freelance journalist based in St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in writing about medical issues, travel, parenting, education, business, food and people. She has three children.