Tattoos, Body Piercing, Send Up Red Flags

Doctors who see tattoos and/or body piercings at sites other than at the earlobes on their young patients may want to assess them for other risky behaviors, say researchers publishing in Pediatrics.

Their study links these body-altering practices to increased incidence of drug use, violence and suicide.

Body piercing and tattoos are becoming increasingly popular and accepted ways for young people to express their individuality. For example, statistics show about 10 percent to 13 percent of adolescents between 12 and 18 have tattoos compared to just 3 percent to 8 percent of the general population. Many studies have looked at this phenomenon, but most of them have only assessed the health risks associated with the procedures themselves.

Investigators from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego looked at whether kids who have these procedures are also more likely to engage in other risky behaviors. They administered a standard questionnaire to about 480 adolescents attending an adolescent clinic. About 13 percent of the teens had at least one tattoo and around 26 percent had reported ever having a body piercing at a site other than the earlobes.

The study found tattoos and body piercing to be more common in females than males. Overall, tattoos were associated with male violence, body piercing with female violence, tattoos and body piercing at younger ages with drug use, and tattoos and younger age at tattooing and body piercing with suicide among females.

The researchers write, “Tattoos and/or body piercings can alert practitioners to the possibility of other risk-taking behaviors in adolescents, leading to preventative measures, including counseling.”

SOURCE: Pediatrics, 2002;109:1021-1027

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