Tattoo Infection


So you've decided to get a tattoo.

It's pretty common. In the US, likely about 1 in 4 (maybe 1 in 5) have a tattoo. Those who are younger are even more likely to have a tattoo.

Maybe it's small one. Maybe it's a big colorful one. You know it will hurt. You know there will be needles. There will be after-care. You'll need to keep it protected and out of the sun.

But is it possible for a tattoo to get infected?

Well, that's always a possibility. Hopefully, it's a low risk. Your risk depends on what precautions you take. Any time a needle pierces your skin, you can have microorganisms enter. Anything from bacteria to viruses or fungus can travel into you through the holes that the needles make.

There are some precautions you can take:

  • Use licensed or registered tattoo parlors, if in the US. Licensing requirements depend on county and state regulations and procedures. These may vary depending on where you go.
  • Observe that the tattoo artists use Standard Universal Precautions, much like in hospitals.
  • Inks used should be manufactured for tattoos.
  • Seek Medical Attention immediately if any problems (skin irritation, infection, fever) occur
  • Infections can be reported, as needed, in the US to the FDA MedWatch System, as well as local health authorities and the tattoo artist and parlor.

Make sure Standard Universal Precautions are used. Some of these precautions include, but are not limited to:

  • Needles are never reused.
  • Clean gloves are used (and changed between clients).
  • Hands should be washed often. Using gloves does not replace hand washing.
  • Sharps (like needles) are not recapped, but are disposed of safely in Sharps Containers.
  • Inks should not be mixed with substances that might not be sterile or safe.

The Ink can also carry infections

To get the right color or shade, inks may be mixed. These inks may be diluted with water to create lighter shades. This water may be safe to drink - but actually not safe to put under our skin. Clean tap water can contain pathogens, like mycobacterium, that can lead to infections if injected under the skin.

  • Equipment, if rinsed, should only be rinsed with sterile water

Infections can spread on your skin

If you have a bacterial skin infection (like a bacterial cellulitis) or maybe a fungal infection (like ringworm) on your skin, this can spread into the tattooed area. These infections can be a problem if the tattoo is brand new. Of course, you should avoid getting a tattoo if you notice that you have an infection on nearby skin.

Not everything is an infection

Pain and redness are common after tattooing, especially immediately after. Some may have allergic reactions. Others may develop scaring, like keloids, where tattooed skin becomes a large bump.

What sorts of infections happen?

These infections can include anything from bacterial infections, like Staph Aureus, including MRSA. Such an infections can also include mycobacterial infections, which are relatives of Tuberculosis, but which usually don't harm us. However, these mycobacterium can be found in water that isn't sterile and can lead to infections growing under the skin if contaminating inks or needles (such as when non-sterile water is used to dilute inks or rinse needles).

Bloodborne Infection

One of the most rule in tattooing is to never re-use needles. Licensed parlors have helped lessen the chance of exposure to bloodborne pathogens. If a needle were to be reused, the needle could transmit an infection from a prior patient to a new patient. Reused needles can transmit Hepatitis C, HIV, and Hepatitis B. Tattoos at licensed parlors make the chance of infection with bloodborne diseases almost zero.

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