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Q—I read a newspaper article that says tattoos can boost our immune system. Is this true? What are other health benefits of tattoos? What health risks are associated with them? —

A—Indeed, there are a few limited studies, albeit by the same researchers, that suggests tattoos may be good for our immune system. In March 2016, a research team from the University of Alabama that examined the association between tattooing and the immune system published the results of their study in the online issue of the American Journal of Human Biology. The results suggest that tattooing could boost the immune system.

As subjects for the study, the researchers used volunteers from a tattoo shop. They examined how many tattoos the subjects had as well as how long each tattooing session lasted. They likewise took blood samples to measure the level of cortisol (a stress hormone) and immunoglobulin A or IgA (an antibody that serves as a frontline defense of the body against some common infections, including the common cold). Analysis of the data the researchers collected showed that tattoos boost the immune system by increasing IgA levels. This effect was greater when the duration of the tattoo session was longer and more pronounced in those who had multiple tattoo sessions.

The same researchers conducted two similar studies in American Samoa where they had 25 and 12 study subjects, respectively. Their findings in these two studies essentially supported the results of their first study in Alabama.

Evidently, our body responds to tattooing in the same way it responds to vaccines. Tattoo dyes act like the antigens that are present in vaccines. They stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies.

But before you go running off to the tattoo parlor to try to strengthen your immune system, bear in mind that a handful of studies by the same authors using very few subjects aren’t proof of anything, despite headlines blaring that tattoos could cure the common cold. To say the least, the studies are not conclusive. And even if the findings are borne out by future large scale and reliable researches, it’s unlikely that the benefits of tattooing are clinically significant enough to make a difference on one’s health.

Also, remember that tattooing, like any procedure that involves puncturing the skin, carries a number of health risks.

Health risks and other inconveniences of tattooing

High on the list of health risks associated with tattooing are infections such as hepatitis B and C, syphilis, abscesses, impetigo, erysipelas, and warts. To date though, there has been no report of the AIDS virus being transmitted through tattooing. These infections are, however, largely due to poor aseptic techniques. When performed by properly trained personnel, the risk for infection is low.

Other possible short-term adverse effects of tattooing include pain, bleeding, hematomas, and allergic reaction to the pigments used. Long-term unwanted effects of tattoos include cyst and scar formation, which among “keloid-formers” may be disfiguring.

Likewise, the metal particles in some tattoos may cause severe burning pain during medical resonance imaging (MRI) tests. In some cases, tattoo pigments can interfere with the quality of the MRI image.

Tattoos may likewise be detected by airport screening machines, which can subject the person with tattoos to the inconvenience of undergoing additional screening procedures. Also, the long-term effects on health of the pigments that are currently used are largely unknown.

These pigments consist of a variety of metallic salts and organic dyes whose long-term effects on health are still undetermined. Many of these dyes are not even approved as ingredients for skin cosmetics and some were originally intended for use in writing and printer inks, as well as automobile paints.

(Note: email inquiries on health matters to:

Source: Manila Bulletin

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