Sharon Denise Allison-Ottey
Ask Dr. Sharon

HELP, My Daughter wants a Tattoo and Her Tongue Pierced?

Posted by Administrator (admin) on Dec 11 2007
Ask Dr. Sharon >> Ask Dr. Sharon

Dear Dr. Sharon,

I am a mother of 3 and my daughter is a 16 year old that is creating havoc in my household. She is an honor roll student, is not boy crazy or had problems with drinking or drugs and I’m very proud of her most of the time. However, my daughter wants to get a tattoo and a tongue ring and this has become a war between us. I have researched tattoos and body piercings because of her. However, I don’t want to be a hypocrite, for my fortieth birthday I got a tattoo in an area that is not readily seen. I am not a prude but I do not want my daughter making major decisions about tattoos and tongue piercing while still a teen, she can do whatever when she is a grown woman. What do you think, is there a health risk associated?  What about our relationship and am I just making her want to get the tattoo and piercing more?  M. Kirkland Brooklyn, NY

Dear M. Kirkland,

Wow—you have a TEENAGER and I know that this must be challenging. Let’s focus on the fact that she is an honor student and still a good kid. I often tell parents to remember themselves as teenagers. Most of us were not the “ideal teen” and whether it was sneaking makeup to school and putting it on without my mother knowing or trying to puff on that cigarette; we all pushed the limits. I do challenge you to continue to be a parent and not try to become a best friend; that isn’t your job. Teens and young adults need PARENTS, they have enough friends.  

The issue of tattoos and body piercing is one that I’m frequently asked about from medical, social and religious prospective. With regard to health, as with any procedure that pierces the skin; there are always risks of complications. There are no health benefits to either tattoos or body piercings, except that of a perceived cosmetic benefit to self esteem or perceived beauty. Although we may not agree with the fad, we can only turn back the pages in our own lives and look at what was popular when we were young adults (i.e. afros, bell bottoms, colored contact lenses, etc…). I do caution anyone that these are in most cases permanent and at the very least difficult to get rid of if you change your mind. 

First, let’s discuss tattoos. The major risk, if any, associated with tattoos, is that of contracting hepatitis. Hepatitis is the infection and resultant inflammation of the liver and can potentially be life threatening. Certain types of viral hepatitis, including hepatitis B and C, can be transmitted through the tattoo needles if they are contaminated with infected blood. This would occur if the tattoo parlor reused needles and/or didn’t properly keep the area sterile. There are no documented cases of HIV infection from body piercing or tattooing. This is a very remote possibility because of blood products being exchanged by the needles from one person to the next (same as with hepatitis).  However, since awareness and education has increased, it is uncommon to find a tattoo business that doesn’t use sterile needles for each client. As with anything, there are always exceptions and one must be sure that they are using a “safe”, reputable tattoo artists.  There are other risks include bacterial infection, reaction to the dye and other irritations that could occur from the actual placement of the tattoos. Tattoos have also been linked to basal cell skin cancer.

Given, all of the above information, I advise that persons gather all of the knowledge possible regarding tattoos and if they are minors, that they talk with their parents and come to an agreement. She is making a lifelong commitment to a tattoo and piercing.  I do encourage persons to think about the type of tattoo—the size, design etc… before having it placed.  It is possible to get the tattoos removed but it is a longer and more tedious process. The final question for young persons or older adults relates to the elasticity of the skin and the effects of aging on the skin. The nice dove that you have placed on the firm skin on your back at 18 years old may begin to look like an old walrus as you age and the skin begins to sag. 

The other portion of your question relates to body piercing and the potential health effects, as you know it is very common for persons to undergo ear piercing and in recent years other parts of the body have been added. As with tattoos, the basic health issues are the same with risk of infection from using equipment that hasn’t been sterilized or that is reused. However, with body piercing, location is very important as it relates to infection and time for healing. There have been bacterial and fungal infections due to piercing and this isn’t a pretty site and can be difficult to treat. A superficial infection at the site of the piercing is common and most often due to not keeping the area clean after the procedure. A small amount of clear to yellow white drainage is common at first but should decrease over time with healing. The healing times are dependent upon the sites, for instance naval piercings may take up to 6 months to heal and are more likely to get infected than other areas. Another site that may be problematic is the tongue, newly pierced tongues may swell a lot in the first few days, this could become a problem with talking, drinking, eating, and if considerable swelling occurs, breathing could become difficult and life threatening. Finally, there are piercings in the genital area which for the life of me I don’t know how they can stand the pain, but to each his own. Certainly irrespective of the area pierced, any continued redness, yellow or green pus, fever needs to be reported to your physician immediately. Also, there are issues associated with the type of jewelry used with the piercing and there can be a reaction to the nickel in the jewelry. I strongly recommend that jewelry be high quality stainless steel, 14K gold, niobium, or titanium. Additionally, if the person has a history of keloid (excess scar formation), I would definitely advise against tattoos and body piercings. 

Finally, the question of both tattoos and body piercings in minors and/or young adults should be one that is between the young person and their families. Please encourage and reaffirm your daughter’s positive strengths, and that beauty is from within and there is nothing cosmetic that can cover up low self-esteem and poor body image. Don’t assume that there is a problem in these areas; she could just want to follow the fashion trend. However, I strongly suggest that you talk to her about self-esteem and making good health choices at all levels whether it’s a tattoo, watching her diet, or making the right choices about sex. The best thing that you can do to preserve your relationship is to listen, provide wisdom and take a deep breath before you say things that you will regret. Again, don’t forget that you once were a teenager but the world is a very different place for them now and they need understanding and PARENTING. Choose your battles wisely!

Last changed: Dec 11 2007 at 1:42 PM


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