Tattoos and Piercings Still Come with Risks

W. Gifford-Jones M.D. and Diana Gifford-Jones – Common Sense Health

Jack London, the American novelist who wrote Call of the Wild in 1903, said, “Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” But in 2022, with tattoos found on more than a third of North Americans and on nearly one in two young people, what is the great allure? And what are the risks?

According to the Wellcome Collection, a museum and library specializing in the connections between medicine, life and art, tattoos date from 5000 BCE. They permeated ancient societies, often representing battle valour or sacrificial rituals. Some tattoos seem to have resulted from scaring from medicinal treatments and others seem to have been purely decorative in purpose.

Piercings have a long history too, especially in the ear and nose. Royalty in ancient Egypt used naval piercings to demonstrate their high-class status.

But injecting ink under the skin or stamping a metal pin through the skin is not without risk.

Infections are the most common problem. Tools that are not properly cleaned or mistakes in caring for the skin after treatment can lead to bacterial or viral infections.  There’s a danger of blood stream infections – hepatitis B or C viruses or tetanus.

Allergic reactions can also occur – immediately after the procedure or long afterward. Joint replacement surgery and other implant procedures have been associated with the onset of rashes at the site of tattoos. Sun exposure can cause problems.  Even the ink of temporary tattoos may cause allergic reactions.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association cautions, if you carry the genes for psoriasis, getting a tattoo can trigger a psoriasis flare or cause psoriasis to appear for the first time.

The list of potential complications from body piercings is long. The American Academy of Pediatricians advises parents and teens to weigh the risks. A common problem is a tear from a fall, sports activities, person-to-person violence, or the accidental pulling of jewelry.

Perceptions about tattoos and body piercings often depend heavily on whom you ask and when.  Recently, negative stereotypes, prejudice, and stigma seem to be giving way. Employers are adopting more open-minded policies and attitudes.  And societal movements are helping body modification establish footing as an empowering form of self-expression.

Nevertheless, the health risks should not be ignored. These risks are what inform the opinions of doctors – and this column has a doctor who has seen a thing or two.

Starting this week, in our e-newsletter, we begin an occasional “then and now” series.  We will rove through the archives of past Gifford-Jones columns, dating back to 1974, paring the current week’s topic with a past column on the same issues.

On this occasion, we are going back only to December 2001 for a column on “The Dangers of Tongue Piercings”. But we have a remarkable 2,400 past articles to draw on. We hope readers will enjoy the occasional journey through time and “no nonsense” health commentary.

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What was the column saying twenty years ago about body piercings?  And how did a gynecological practice have anything to do with it?

Body piercings have migrated to all parts of the human form, but in 2001 it was still unusual to find piercings in some places and it “made my white hair stand on end.”

Fair warning, that’s not the worst of it.

This father-daughter team, needless to say, is tattoo-free and the rebellious pierced teenage ears have long since healed over.Sign-up at to receive our weekly e-newsletter. For comments, Follow us on Instagram @docgiff and @diana_gifford_jones