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A tattoo is a form of body art that’s created when ink is inserted, using a needle, into the dermis layer of the skin. This changes the skin’s pigment and can be used to create almost any image imaginable.
Permanent makeup is also a form of tattooing. This is when permanent ink is used to mimic the look of eyeliner, lip liner, eyebrow pencil, or other kinds of makeup.
Tattoos have become more and more popular in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center, almost four of every 10 people born after 1980 have at least one tattoo.
Piercing is another popular form of body art. This is a type of body modification where a needle punctures a hole in the body. Jewelry is then inserted in this hole. Ears, noses, eyebrows, tongues, lips, navels, nipples, genitals, and other body parts can be pierced. More dramatic body modification procedures include using jewelry to stretch the earlobe, implanting beads into the skin, deliberately scarring the skin (scarification), using dermal punch procedures to create a hole in cartilage, and many more.
Although piercings and tattoos have grown in popularity, these procedures have health risks.
Before making the decision to modify your body, it’s important to understand the adverse side effects associated with these procedures.
When you receive a tattoo, a tattoo artist uses a handheld machine with an attached needle to puncture the skin. Every time this device makes a hole, it injects ink into the dermis — the second layer of skin below the epidermis.
Tattoos are a common form of self-expression, but they also damage the skin and can cause complications. Complications could include:
The long-term effects of tattoo ink and colorings remain unknown. Until recently, no government regulatory agency has closely examined the safety of tattoo ink.
More than 50 colorings used in tattoos have been approved for use in cosmetics, but the risk of injecting them beneath the skin is unclear. Such pigments are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So far, the FDA has only looked at whether these pigments were safe for external use, not for injection under the skin. No coloring has been officially approved for injection under the skin.
Modifying your body with piercings also carries a measure of risk, such as the risk for a bacterial infection. Some people develop an abscess after getting a piercing. This pus-filled mass can develop around the piercing. This is a serious side effect. If left untreated, there’s the risk for sepsis or blood poisoning.
Sepsis is a life-threatening response to an infection that can result in organ failure and death. Symptoms of blood poisoning include a high fever, chills, a fast heartbeat, and rapid breathing. Infections are more common with mouth and nose piercings because these areas contain more bacteria.
Other risks associated with body piercings include:
There are also location-specific risks with body piercings. A tongue piercing can cause damage to your teeth and cause you to have difficulty speaking. Additionally, if your tongue swells after getting the piercing, swelling can block your airway making it harder to breathe.
A genital piercing can cause painful sex and urination. The risk of complications is higher if you have other medical conditions like:
Talk to a doctor before getting a piercing if you suffer from any these conditions.
You can lower the chance of health complications with a tattoo or piercing by taking a few simple precautions.
There’s also a lower risk of infection and complications from body modifications with proper aftercare steps.
Signs of an infected tattoo or piercing include red, swollen skin, a fever, and an abscess. See a doctor immediately if you suspect an infection.
Tattoos can be removed, but not always completely or with satisfying cosmetic results. The process is expensive and requires repeated visits to a doctor. Scarring is also likely. The FDA recommends laser surgery performed by a dermatologist as a safe tattoo removal technique. Consult your doctor if you’re thinking about having a tattoo removed.
Reversal of piercing is usually as simple as removing the jewelry and allowing the hole in the skin to heal. Punctured cartilage, stretched skin, and other body modifications may require surgical correction.
Written by: Valencia Higuera and the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: Aug 08, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, School of Medicine
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