Prevalence and Characteristics of Body Piercing and Tattooing among High School Students

Article excerpt


Background: Although body piercing and tattooing seem to be gaining popularity among a diversity of social and age groups, studies of these practices in general adolescent populations are scarce. This study establishes the prevalence of body modification (tattooing and body piercing) among high school students in grades 7-11 (aged 12 to 18).

Methods: Data come from a 2002 in-school survey conducted among a representative sample of 2,180 students (81% response rate) enrolled in the 23 high schools of the Outaouais region in Quebec. Systematic sampling was performed. Specific data on tattooing and body piercing are available for 2,145 students (1% non-response rate).

Results: A prevalence of 27% for body piercing and 8% for tattooing is observed among high school students. Differences between girls and boys are observed in many ways: i.e., frequency and number of tattoos or piercings; aftercare practices. While most teens say that a "professional" in a studio performed their body modification and that they received aftercare instruction, a high percentage of students report health complications following the procedure.

Conclusion: Results show that tattooing and body piercing are common among adolescents and may involve health risks. Consequently, appropriate preventive measures should be adopted by professionals such as school counsellors, nurses, physicians and others who are in contact with teenagers to help them make informed choices.

MeSH terms: Tattooing; body piercing; adolescents; survey

Most articles on tattooing and body piercing published in the last 10 years suggest that the popularity of these practices is on the rise in Western societies, especially among youth.1-4 Today, these practices are perceived by many as adornment or artwork,1,5 while others categorize them as deviant behaviour.6,7 The reasons invoked by youth for tattooing or piercing refer mostly to the expression of individuality (i.e., to feel unique and special), to the confirmation of their personal identity, and to aesthetics.2,7,8

Studies among adolescents are very limited, particularly regarding body piercing, and respondents are often those identified as "at-risk" youth, such as prison detainees and military population. According to the studies, the prevalence of tattoos in adolescents ranges from 4.5-23%.9-13 One American study of body piercing identified a prevalence of 27%.10

Literature pertaining to the medical complications of body piercing and tattooing remains relatively scant.2,14 Complications arising from body piercing and tattooing are mostly limited to case reports.14,15 They cover allergies and sensitivity to dyes used in tattoos, allergic reactions to certain metals used in body jewellery, and scar tissue formation.16,17 Body piercing has also been associated with bacterial infections,18 bleeding, skin tissue tearing, hypertrophie scars, dermatitis and endocarditis2,15 Many authors recognize tattooing and body piercing as possible vectors for the transmission of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV.8,17,19-22 A 1999 United Kingdom survey of family practitioners showed that 95% of them have seen patients with complications resulting from a piercing.23

In order to gain a more current picture of these practices among the general adolescent population, the objectives of the present study were to: 1) establish the prevalence of tattooing and body piercing in a population of high school students, and 2) describe these practices in terms of number of tattoos and piercings (other than earlobes), status of the performer, reasons for getting it done, aftercare instruction, and medical complications.


Data come from a 2002 in-school survey conducted among a representative sample of students grades 7-11 (aged 12 to 18) enrolled in all high schools (N=23) of the Outaouais region in Quebec (located in proximity to Canada's national capital). …