As millions of teenagers begin their final summer before college, not a few are prepping for cosmetic surgery, to take advantage of the long recovery time and a transition from one peer group to the next. In the aftermath of a $20 million-plus court award in Pennsylvania in May to a family whose 18-year-old daughter died from what was likely a pulmonary embolism after liposuction, some parents may be wondering whether cosmetic treatments in teens are safe.
U.S. News & World Report asked Richard D'Amico, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, what families should consider when deciding whether to take the plunge.
How do doctors determine if surgery in teens is appropriate?
I think it's important to draw a distinction between teenagers who are younger than 18 and those who are older. At 18, these individuals are adults in the eyes of the law and are allowed to make the decision on their own. For those under 18, it becomes a family and parental matter. We also have to distinguish between procedures that are purely cosmetic and those that are reconstructive. Several factors are important in deciding when and for whom surgery is appropriate: an ability to understand the procedure; that the desire for surgery does not reflect what a parent, friend, or boyfriend desires; and that expectations are realistic. If your expectations aren't realistic and you have low self-esteem or no friends, cosmetic surgery is not the right answer. Rather, I would recommend counseling. But if a young person has good self-esteem and good family support, can understand what's going on, and has realistic expectations, then surgery may be appropriate. The need to know all these things is what makes the consultation so critical.
It can be entirely appropriate for teenagers under 18 to undergo reconstructive procedures. This is most often for maldevelopment of the breast in girls [which can include deformities and severe underdevelopment of the breast and nipple] and overdevelopment of the breast in young teenage boys—a condition known as gynecomastia. When girls' breasts are too big for their bodies, a breast reduction is also considered a reconstructive procedure.
What about cosmetic or aesthetic procedures?
On the cosmetic side for those under 18, we're really talking about rhinoplasty, where the primary endeavor is to improve the appearance of the nose, whether or not there is a problem with the septum. Both the Food and Drug Administration and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons feel that young women under 18 should not get breast implants for purely cosmetic reasons. Once a teenager reaches 18 years of age, we can perform cosmetic enhancements or enlargement of the breast using saline implants. FDA guidelines suggest waiting until 22 years of age before using gel implants.
Is it considered OK for teens who are concerned with their weight to get liposuction?
It's generally discouraged in teens younger than 18 with weight problems. It's recommended that weight loss is addressed and controlled with diet and exercise. The body contouring technique is not a weight loss tool, and that is true at any age. In fact, if someone is grossly overweight, he or she has to get to a better weight before liposuction is considered. There are a lot of teenagers with psychological issues related to their weight. And while as plastic surgeons we usually don't get involved in counseling, if someone who is 15 or 16 is obsessed with their weight, counseling can be very helpful.
And for teens 18 and older?
It's a very reasonable and useful tool, but we like to have people with the maturity to be able to manage their weight with diet and exercise. Then contouring improvements can be made. Are teenagers more susceptible to certain complications than adults are?
No. But people need to know that cosmetic surgery is still surgery and, though extremely rare, there are risks. Before we even go ahead with surgery, the family and the teenager need to understand the potential risks from both surgery and anesthesia.