Humans spanning the globe have been marking their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years. Although there's no definitive start date, it's argued that this practice has been going on since 5200 B.C. From elaborate to plain yet always personal, these inkings have served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments, medical purposes, and even signs of punishment. From fun, colorful, and quirky, to dark, somber, and serious, whatever kind of tattoo you desire, we can all agree on what we don't want: an infected tattoo.
For some cultures tattooing is a way of life, marking achievements and certain passages. For others, it has been considered taboo and reckless. Yet in this modern era, they're becoming undeniably mainstream with every type of individual across the spectrum sporting one.
With tattoos being so commonplace and easily obtainable, many are quick to forget exactly what they entail and the proper care required. The United States boasts over 20,000 tattoo parlors, and there's been many "spur of the moment" shop visits that have ended up in some spontaneous ink.
Being well informed and taking preventative measures to stay healthy is always our best route, yet even that way isn't always fail-safe. So whether you did your due diligence or were neglectful and absent-minded which led to an infected tattoo, there are still ways to come away from it unscathed while enjoying your new ink for many years to come.
The Dangers of an Infected Tattoo
Although they are generally uncommon, infections do occur with a small percentage becoming quite severe. A fresh tattoo is essentially an open wound that's vulnerable to nasty germs and bacteria before a protective scab layer can form.
If germs and bacteria gain entry into the wound, your immune system may not be able to stop the damage and death to surrounding tissue, causing an infected tattoo. There are hundreds of skin infections with each having different characteristics and severity. Known causes of tattoo infection include:
Staphylococcal bacteria are a common cause of skin infection and one of the more common reasons for tattoo-related infections. While many species of staph bacteria are treatable with basic antibiotics, a variety of S. aureus known as MRSA has become resistant to most known antibiotics and is extremely difficult to treat.
People with MRSA often experience severe fever, body pain, pneumonia, and immune-related conditions such as arthritis, a week or two after exposure.
Additional complications associated with MRSA infections include:
- Bloodstream infections and sepsis
- Toxic shock syndrome
- Red, blistering patches
- Organ failure
- Infection and swelling of the tissues that line the heart valves
In the last decade, nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) infections have become an increasingly common cause of tattoo-associated skin infections. Symptoms of NTM infections most commonly include red or transparent patches of raised, thickened skin that may come and go over a period of weeks to months.
Several types of viral infections can be passed on from a contaminated, contagious source when the skin is broken.
Potential viral infections associated with tattoos include:
- Hepatitis B
- Hepatitis C
- Herpes simplex virus
- Viral warts
Ink Toxicity or Allergy
This strays slightly off topic since it differs from an actual infection. Regardless, it's well worth noting. Some people are allergic to the actual tattoo ink itself, from specific molecules called haptens. These are most prevalent in red, blue, and green inks. Tattoo ink allergy responses are often quite severe, causing extremely itchy, hard, thickened, blistering wounds that require medical attention.
Most times infections remain minor and localized, and can actually heal by themselves over several days to a few weeks. Minor inflammation can be relieved with rest, ice, and elevation.
Causes of an Infected Tattoo
There are really just two main causes that will lead to an infected tattoo, but within those two are numerous underlying factors.
Unsanitary Tattooing Environment/ Equipment
For the most part, tattoo shops, the artist, and the equipment are well maintained and sanitary, abiding by the many health and safety regulations. Honestly, they don't want you to get infected and have an image to uphold. With that, a rare mistake may take place, or you chose a rather unsavory shop. And as tempting as that freebie is done by your buddy from down the street, just don't. Some things to look for when choosing a tattoo parlor:
- A clean workspace. From the counters to the chairs and floor: don't patronize the shop if there's visible dirt, grime, or clutter. Remember, you're purposefully receiving an open wound here. You want medical grade cleanliness!
- Request their recent spore testing which should be conducted at least once a month. They should use Autoclave or Statim to sterilize their tools. Don't be afraid to ask!
- Needles should be unsealed in front of you. Never let an artist use an unsealed/ unpackaged needle.
- Failing to pour pigments from single-use plastic vessels or using pigment stored and removed from an unsanitary area. Rare cases of sealed contaminated ink from the manufacturer is a possibility unrelated to the artist. This doesn't happen often enough to panic over.
- Not thoroughly washing their hands or using gloves, also eating, drinking, handling the phone, etc. while inking.
- Using dirty towels to wipe oozing plasma or blood while inking.
Some artists follow this to a T yet fail to give you the proper advice for aftercare, possibly none at all. Don't leave until you've thoroughly discussed what needs to be done to maintain the proper health and care of your fresh ink.
Improper After Care
The higher probable cause of an infection doesn't lie with the shop or the artist; it lies with you. How you clean and care for your new ink is the crucial aspect of proper healing and a beautiful new tattoo to enjoy for life. Common sense practice is all it takes to avoid an infected tattoo.
- Don't remove the bandage too early nor too late. Ideally, wait at least 8 hours before removal, yet don't go past 24 and wash right after that bandage comes off.
- That scab is your protective barrier for your healing wound. Avoid the desire to pick and scratch at it. You'll only re-expose the vulnerable underside, and possibly introduce harmful bacteria from underneath your fingernails.
- Shower instead of bathing. Water runs clean and flushes dirt away rather than sitting in pooled, soiled bath water.
- Neglecting to properly cleanse the area. Use a mild anti-bacterial soap and proper skin lubricant specifically for tattoos.
- Don't let others touch your new ink. It's tempting, but just be patient and let it heal properly first.
- Wearing or using dirty/ soiled clothing and towels. Fresh is best. Keeping your new tattoo germ free means being as fresh and clean as well.
Treating an Infected Tattoo
Before you can tend to an infection, you must recognize the symptoms.
- Fever, especially over 102F degrees
- Prolonged or severe pain, redness, and swelling
- Sores that contain or release thick, white or yellow fluid
- Muscle aches and pain affecting the entire body
- Extreme or unquenchable thirst
- Hard, red, raised bumps or wounds
- Nausea and vomiting
Another problem that may occur, albeit it very rare is impetigo. An infection causing sores on the nose, mouth, hands, and feet that develop into yellowish, tiny scabs.
Most tattoos cause minor inflammations and are easily treated. Rest, ice, and elevation along with an OTC anti-inflammatory medication can comfortably get you through the next day. Any type of minor allergic reactions can be remedied with an antihistamine such as Benadryl for small red bumps or a faint rash around the site of the tattoo.
Antibiotic creams, ointments, or pills are the first line of recommended treatment for most minor skin infections. In the case of more serious skin conditions - such as viral or blood infections - a small skin sample may be collected from the affected area for laboratory examination and diagnosis. Most treatment options that require more than routine antibiotics are determined by the specific cause of each case.
Be mindful and aware of your body, along with knowing the proper treatment to care for it. Tattoo infections are a serious matter not to be taken lightly. A strict responsibility to follow aftercare step by step can eliminate your chance of infection almost completely. And knowing what to look for if the chance of infection has already set in? Don't hesitate and make it a priority to see your doctor.
A healthy immune system works best with a fit and healthy body. It can neutralize threats and efficiently heal wounds before any bacteria or germs can cause real damage, like an infected tattoo. Lifestyle choices reflect this, so it's best to try and be your best when giving an open wound time to heal.
Avoid drinking binges whereas alcohol depresses your immune system. Amp up your diet with whole foods, extra fruit, and veggies, and don't forget the restorative power of sleep. Good health and well -being is great for both you and your tattoo. Happy inking!