You Pierced Your What??

When 16-year-old Autumn Lane’s mother discovered her daughter’s tongue had been pierced, she sat teary-eyed and speechless. Autumn had asked on a number of occasions for a piercing; Ann had OK’d the navel but had drawn the line at the tongue. But, Autumn disobeyed her mother, and she had the tongue stud to prove it.

“We had no idea. I was just blown away,” says Ann. “She had a friend do it four months earlier, which makes it even worse. She could have gotten an infection or had terrible complications. We have demanded she remove the stud and let it grow back.”

Body art — whether holes in the earlobe or an intricate rose tattooed on the hip — has been common for centuries. In ancient Egypt, royal families often pierced their navels to represent their supreme social standing. Like the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs, they also tattooed their mummies. The Vikings tattooed family crests and tribal symbols on their bodies, and the Romans associated ear piercing with wealth and luxury. Nose piercing dates back to more than 4,000 years ago in the Middle East; in India, many women still adorn their noses with jewelry.

However, it’s the Western world that has used piercing and tattoos as an expression of individuality. Body art was popular during the hippie era of the 1960s, enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s with punk rockers and is hipper than ever today.

But just because royal families, pharaohs and sailors have done it, does that mean your own child needs to adorn her body? Only you (and your child!) can make that decision.

Getting a tattoo at a place that doesn’t adhere to these regulations puts your teen at risk for HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis. In fact, because of the risk of these infections, the American Association of Blood Banks won’t accept blood donations until one year after a person has gotten a tattoo.
Be aware, however, that body piercing and tattooing are unregulated in most states and are even illegal in some. In North Carolina, tattoo artists must meet state sanitation requirements and have a permit. State regulations make it illegal to tattoo anyone younger than 18. Piercing is not regulated at all in the Tarheel State, though it’s unlawful to pierce anything other than earlobes on anyone younger than 18 without a parent’s approval. Often that doesn’t stop the younger set.

If your child has approached you about body art, do some research. Consider these facts and tips as you (and your child) make the decision to refrain or go ahead and let the needle fall where it may.

Holes Here and There

Lane discovered that Autumn had secretly had her tongue pierced only after she spoke with their dentist. She first became suspicious when she overheard a neighbor’s child ask to see the piercing. Rather than confront her daughter at that time, she contacted the dentist, with whom Autumn had an appointment the next week. Dentists are the often the first to detect tongue piercing in teens — far earlier than many parents.

After Autumn’s regular dental check-up, Lane called the dentist and asked. She discovered her quiet, smart daughter had convinced a friend to perform the piercing.

“I thought it looked cute. It was just something I always wanted to do,” Autumn, a soft-spoken blonde, says of the stud with clear ball that eluded her parent’s notice. “It didn’t hurt nearly as bad as I thought it would, and I thought it was pretty cool. My mother thought otherwise.”

“It was stupid in the sense that I did it without my parent’s permission but if they says OK I’d do it again for sure,” she says, noting that her mother has demanded she let the hole grow in and that she regularly gets “tongue-checks.”

Body modification today goes far beyond the traditional pierced ears. Piercing sites now include the ear cartilage, tongue, lips, eyebrows, nipples, navel and genitals. In a 2002 study of 454 university students, more than one-half says they had a body piercing and about a quarter says they had a tattoo. The Mayo Clinic reported that of those students with piercings, nearly one in five reported a medical complication due to the procedure itself or how they cared for the piercing afterward. Complications included bacterial infection, bleeding and injury or tearing at the site.

Know that the American Dental Association opposes tongue, lip or cheek piercing and calls them public health hazards; likewise the American Academy of Dermatology has taken a position against all forms of body piercing. And both the U.S. and Canadian Red Cross won’t accept blood donations from anyone who has had a body piercing or tattoo within a year because both procedures can transmit dangerous blood-borne diseases.

Those who are pierced run the risk of chronic infection, prolonged bleeding, scarring, hepatitis B and C, tetanus, skin allergies to jewelry, abscesses or boils, permanent holes in nostril or eyebrow, chipped or broken teeth, and choking from mouth jewelry. The mouth (think warm, dark and moist) is the perfect haven for bacteria to grow when the tongue is pierced. The end of the nose is made of cartilage that, if it gets infected or has a blood collection, can wither away because blood can’t get to it properly.

Last fall, researchers with the Infectious Diseases Society of America announced that piercing body parts containing cartilage — especially around the tops of the ears — can be more hazardous than piercing flesh because the cartilage heals so much more slowly. Ear lobes, however, are generally safe to pierce because the lobe is made of fatty tissue and has a good blood supply, which can help prevent infection. A navel has good blood flow, too, although bellybutton piercing isn’t officially endorsed by any health care organization.

Lydia, a 37-year-old mom, wanted to make sure her 13-year-old’s belly-button piercing was safe and supervised; she had heard too many horror stories about children being pierced by friends in the less-than-sterile environment of a bedroom. But, she discovered the shop her daughter Kelsey was referred to was less than ideal. “It was a pretty grimy place. The procedure itself was sanitary with sterilized equipment and antiseptic, but the place was a dive. It was nasty,” says Lydia, adding that it was one of the few places they found that would pierce a 13-year-old.

Still the pair went ahead and had their navels pierced early last year. “As long as there are limits set, I think it’s fine. There are worse ways for kids to express themselves. I tend to pick my battles. Piercing other areas — I would stop at that,” says Lydia.

She adds that she had the piercing done as well as an expression of faith and confidence in her teen. “It’s a bonding experience for us now,” she says. “We shop for belly-button rings together. It’s something we have in common.”

If you child is intent on a piercing, make sure the shop:

• is clean

• avoids the use of piercing guns, which aren’t sterile

• uses needles once and disposes of them in a special container

• sterilizes everything that comes near the customer in an autoclave

• has a piercer who wears disposable gloves and a mask

Keep a close eye on after-care. Remind kids not to pick or tug at the area, keep it clean with soap (not alcohol) and not to touch the area without washing their hands first. Those who have a mouth piercing should use an antibacterial mouthwash after eating.

Skin Art

A tattoo is a permanent mark or design made on the body with pigment inserted into the dermal layer of the skin through ruptures in the skin’s top layer. A small needle pierces the skin repeatedly — an action that resembles that of a sewing machine — inserting tiny ink droplets with every puncture. A small tattoo on average takes about 45 minutes, and a larger tattoo may take several hours and possibly several visits.

Before your child indulges in a permanent tattoo, remember that tattoos are painful, can be extremely expensive to remove, and involve health risks. If your teen is serious about getting a tattoo, find a tattoo studio that is clean, safe and professional. You can call your local health department to ask for recommendations and check for any complaints about a particular studio. Keep in mind the following essential questions. Professional studios usually take pride in their cleanliness and won’t mind if you ask:

• Is there an autoclave? This is a device that uses steam, pressure and heat for sterilization. You should be allowed to watch as needles and any other equipment are sterilized in the autoclave.

• Is the tattoo artist a licensed practitioner? If so, the studio should be able to provide you with references.

• Are “universal precautions” followed? These are precautions listed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that outline a certain procedure to be followed when dealing with bodily fluids (in this case, blood). If they answer “yes” to this question, it should mean that guidelines for preventing infections are always followed.

Most importantly, trust your gut. If the studio looks unclean or if anything looks out of the ordinary, find a better studio.

Getting a tattoo at a place that doesn’t adhere to these regulations puts your teen at risk for HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis. In fact, because of the risk of these infections, the American Association of Blood Banks won’t accept blood donations until one year after a person has gotten a tattoo. And those with tattoos are nine times more likely to carry the hepatitis C infection. In a study published in the March 2001 issue of Medicine, 33 percent of people with a tattoo had hepatitis C compared with 3.5 percent of those with no tattoos.

Those who do get a tattoo should take care of it until it fully heals — protecting it by applying an antibiotic cream (such as Neosporin) and wearing sunscreen or covering it with a garment while in the sun. Tattoos should be protected by sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 because the area will always be more susceptible to the harmful rays of the sun.