Imagine pricking your hand thousands of times
And then putting your pinpricked hand in a tub of dirty water.
That’s not too far off from what happens if you take a dip in a lake, ocean, or hot tub soon after getting a new tattoo or sustaining a cut or other wound.
And it’s pretty much what happened last month to a man who got a pair of praying hands and crucifix tattooed on his right calf, and then took a swim in the Gulf of Mexico five days later.
The man was infected by the Vibrio bacteria in the water. He went into septic shock and died a few weeks later.
The incident has brought new attention to the need to abide by medical recommendations to avoid swimming for a couple weeks after getting a new tattoo.
Dermatologists say fatal cases like this are rare, but with so many Americans getting tattoos — nearly 3 in 10 overall, and half of millennials — it’s important to get the word out.
“After any break to the skin, the natural immune defenses are impaired, and this increases the risk of infection,” Dr. Kathleen Welsh, a dermatologist in San Francisco, told Healthline. “Sea or freshwater in particular, but also poorly treated hot tubs or pools, may have a high bacterial content, and so bacteria could penetrate the damaged skin and cause a mild or even a serious infection.”
Welsh noted that post-tattoo healing time varies based on the person and tattoo location.
A tattoo near the genitals, buttocks, or below the knee is at higher risk of encountering more bacteria.
However, if there are no complications and scabbing after two weeks, it should be safe to get back in the water.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infections by Vibrio bacteria cause some 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths each year in the United States.
These illnesses are largely from consuming raw seafood or exposing a wound to seawater, especially in the warmer months.
In addition to keeping your fresh tattoo away from the ocean, experts recommend ensuring the area doesn’t come into contact with juices from raw seafood.
Dr. Darrell Rigel, a New York-based dermatologist, and professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, noted that the risk isn’t only to your health but to your brand new ink.
Even if it’s not deadly, an infection in the tattooed area might leave permanent scarring.
Amateur tattoos could be especially problematic, Rigel told Healthline.
In addition to the other risks, they could make you more prone to infection. Unlike a tattoo done by a professional with precision machinery that injects the ink down to a uniform distance, an amateur tattoo artist might pierce to many different depths.
That could lead to a greater breakdown of the skin and leave it more susceptible to bacteria.
If you simply can’t resist the waves, Rigel said you “theoretically” should be able to cover a small tattoo — 4 inches or so — with a bioclusive dressing, which is supposed to be impermeable to microorganisms.
But it’s probably better to just stay on dry land.
Welsh recommended keeping a new tattoo covered, clean, and moist to aid healing, and use an ointment like Aquaphor or Vaseline. And resist that urge to scratch it.