DEAR DOCTOR K:
My teenage son wants to get a tattoo. What are the risks?
These days it seems like every other young person has a tattoo, so it should come as no surprise that your teen wants one, too. Tattoos can allow a teen to be like his peers or simply to make an artistic statement.
Talk with your teen about why he wants one. Make sure he has thought everything through carefully. Yes, I know he’s a teenager and thinking things through may not come easily. But make sure he understands that there are dangers to getting a tattoo.
Teenagers, of course, do lots of things that are dangerous. Unless they result in permanent injury, however, they’re temporary. A person can look back at driving at high speeds and appreciate the risk he was taking back then. But it was a temporary lapse in judgment.
In contrast, tattoos can be permanent. If later in life your son is not happy with his decision and wants a tattoo removed, it can be difficult (sometimes impossible) and painful. These days, laser treatments are the most widely used technique to remove tattoos. They’re not always successful, and sometimes they leave permanent scars.
There are possible dangers to having any procedure done to our bodies. Your son needs to understand all the risks. These include:
- Pain during the procedure.
- Painful skin infections (and sometimes blood infections), which can occur if the tattoo is not done under sterile conditions, or if the site is not properly cared for afterward. Recently the Journal of the American Medical Association reported cases of tattoo-related severe infections from mycobacteria, related to the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. Either the needles or the ink can be contaminated with bacteria. Even more dangerous is the possibility of a virus (such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV) being spread from a dirty needle. That’s why it is essential to choose a tattoo parlor that uses proper sterile technique and sterile needles.
- Allergic reaction. Anyone may develop allergic reactions to tattoo dye.
Your son can decrease these risks by choosing a reputable tattoo studio. Contact your state Department of Public Health to find out if it licenses or certifies tattoo parlors. He (if you trust his judgment) or you should check out several studios before selecting one. And he should spend time watching the artist place a tattoo on someone else.
It is also important that your son follows “after care” instructions to best prevent infection. In general, the site should be kept clean and dry. He should watch the site carefully for any signs of infection, including redness, pus, tenderness or fever. If any of these signs develop, contact a physician right away.