Increasingly in many countries around the world, including Australia and New Zealand, people are resorting to cosmetic surgery to increase their personal appeal. They should be aware that surgery of any kind carries risks and may result in a burden to the country’s public health system. In addition, the desired cosmetic result may not be achieved.

In both Australia and New Zealand there is no systematic gathering of data about cosmetic surgery, nor about the risks posed by this kind of procedure. In many cases, patients demand this kind of surgery without proper knowledge of the risks and consequences that it involves.

Because it can be cheaper overseas, many Australian women — and some men — travel to Asian countries to have cosmetic surgery. According to some estimates, more than 15,000 Australians head overseas every year to have this kind of procedure, particularly in Thailand.

China is now the largest market for cosmetic surgery in the world. However, when population is considered, South Korea is No. 1. It is estimated that more than 16 in 1,000 Koreans had undergone some kind of plastic surgery. The United States is also among the leading countries, as is Brazil, where female patients far outnumber their male counterparts.

Among the most common kinds of cosmetic surgery are eyelid surgery, nose jobs, liposuction and breast augmentation. Risks associated with liposuction result from the injection of fluids to help break down and aspirate the fat. If too much fluid is used, the patient’s heart can be overburdened. In some cases, patients run the risk of embolism (blockage of an artery).

All surgeries, including cosmetic procedures, carry risks. Those with a history of cardiovascular disease, lung disease, diabetes or obesity have a higher risk of complications such as pneumonia, stroke, heart attack or blood clots in the legs or lungs, the Mayo Clinic warns.

Other risks include poor cosmetic outcome, scarring, nerve damage or numbness, infection, hematoma (a collection of blood outside of a blood vessel), death of tissue, bleeding and problems related to the anesthesia. Some lifestyle changes previous to surgery are important, such as quitting smoking, as nonsmokers heal faster and have less scarring.

Another problem of cosmetic surgery is that it can easily become psychologically contagious. Lawmakers in the U.S. have tried to curb abuse of cosmetic surgery not involving deformities provoked by congenital abnormalities, injuries or disfiguring diseases by proposing a 5 percent tax on elective cosmetic surgery, a policy that countries where there is extensive abuse of this procedure might want to follow.

A study on the effects of cosmetic surgery conducted in Norway found that women who underwent cosmetic surgery were more likely to have poorer mental health, including depression and anxiety disorders. The study also found that cosmetic surgery didn’t solve those problems and in some cases even increased them. Many experts believe the main beneficiaries of these procedures are the medical professionals who charge huge sums to perform them.

Dr. Robin T.W. Yuan, a graduate of Harvard Medical School and one of the top plastic surgeons in the U.S., stated: “It is clear to me that people are led as much today by media and celebrity as by our profession’s relentless marketing. Too often, I have seen people’s misconceptions lead to inappropriate, unsatisfactory, and even harmful surgeries.”

To diminish problems associated with cosmetic surgery it is critical to develop stringent regulations under which physicians should operate and ensure that all patients considering plastic or cosmetic surgery become fully informed about the risks.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant.

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