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Tattoos are an increasingly common sight. Around 4 in 10 Americans now have one or more tattoos.
Tattoos are also becoming less controversial in the workplace in many industries. You may see several co-workers, your boss, or executive management sporting visible tattoos, even in a traditional office environment.
The popularity of tattoos may convince you that they aren’t all that risky to get. But getting a tattoo does carry some risk: Inserting an ink-covered needle into your skin has the potential to introduce foreign matter or infections into your body.
Getting a tattoo from a person or a shop that doesn’t properly clean their tools — or provide you with instructions for keeping your fresh tattoo clean — can lead to skin conditions, infections, or other health problems.
Here’s what you need to know about recognizing a possible infection, treating the affected area, and more.
The most common symptom of a tattoo infection is a rash or red, bumpy skin around the area of the tattoo.
In some cases, your skin may just be irritated because of the needle, especially if you have sensitive skin. If this is the case, your symptoms should fade after a few days.
But if these symptoms continue for a week or more, see your tattoo artist or doctor.
See your doctor if you experience one or more of the following:
- waves of heat and cold
- abnormal shivering
- swelling of the tattooed area
- pus coming out of the area
- red lesions around the area
- red streaking from the area
- areas of hard, raised tissue
A staph infection is one type of infection you might get with a tattoo. Although these infections are treatable, staph bacteria can often develop resistance to regular antibiotics, making prescription treatments ineffective.
Staph bacteria, especially methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), can also get into your bloodstream and internal organs. When this happens, other conditions can develop, such as sepsis, arthritis, and toxic shock syndrome.
Some common symptoms of staph infection include:
- aches or pains in your bones or muscles
- fever of 102°F (38.9°C) or more
- swelling of the infected area
- extreme thirst
- sores in the infected area, filled with pus or fluid
- impetigo (a honey-crusted rash)
See your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room if you have any of these symptoms after getting a tattoo.
Minor bumps and rashes can usually be managed at home with antibacterial ointment, proper cleaning, and rest.
If you’re experiencing an infection, treatment depends on the cause. Your doctor may take a swab of the area or lance a pus pocket (if one is present) to see what bacteria or virus is causing the infection.
In most cases, your doctor can prescribe an antibiotic to help stop the infection. In severe cases of infection, antibiotic treatments may last for weeks or months.
If your infection was caused by MRSA bacteria, antibiotics may not be beneficial. If MRSA causes an abscess, your doctor may drain it instead of giving you antibiotics.
In rare cases of infection, surgery may be required. If your tissue has died due to the infection (necrosis), surgery may be needed to remove it.
Persistent, sometimes itchy, and painful bumps in your tattoo may be signs of an atypical mycobacterial infection. This requires long-term antibiotic treatment.
If you begin to feel feverish and experience abnormal oozing or scabbing around the tattooed area, see a doctor. These are common signs of infection. You should also see a doctor if a rash or swelling lasts for more than a week.
If an infection isn’t treated soon enough or can’t be treated properly because the bacteria have become resistant to an antibiotic, abscesses can result. Removal may require special treatment in the clinic or hospital.
You should also see a doctor if you experience uncomfortable itching around the tattooed area or if the area is oozing pus or fluid. You may be having an allergic reaction to the ink.
An allergic reaction can also lead to anaphylactic shock. This causes your throat to close up and your blood pressure to become dangerously low. Go to the emergency room right away if this kind of allergic reaction occurs.
Tattoo infections are usually easy to treat and even easier to prevent. Most infections can be treated within a week with antibiotics. However, some infections can be very serious and require long-term antibiotics or other medications.
Learning how to choose a good tattoo artist and take care of your tattoo are crucial to making sure that your tattoo heals well, doesn’t get infected, and looks the way you want it to.
Bad infections may result in long-term antibiotic care, but usually they won’t cause any long-lasting health problems. However, though rare, it’s possible to get a condition such as hepatitis or HIV from a tattoo needle. In these cases, you might require more intensive, long-term treatment.
Before getting a tattoo, find out if you’re allergic to any ingredients in tattoo ink. Make sure you ask your tattoo artist what ingredients their inks contain. If you’re allergic to any of the ingredients, ask for a different ink or avoid getting a tattoo altogether. However, keep in mind that it may be difficult to know what exactly is in tattoo inks as they aren’t regulated in any way.
Make sure that all items that touch your skin have been properly sterilized. Don’t feel shy about asking the parlor about how they sterilize their instruments and meet safety standards. It’s your health!
Other things to consider before getting a tattoo include:
- Is the tattoo parlor licensed? Licensed parlors have to be inspected by a health agency and meet certain safety requirements in order to stay open.
- Is the tattoo parlor reputable? It’s worth visiting a few tattoo parlors before you decide to get a tattoo to see how trustworthy the parlor is. Reading reviews online or hearing about the shop through word-of-mouth are good ways to gauge how safe the shop is.
- Does your potential tattoo artist follow safety procedures? Your tattoo artist should use a new, sterilized needle every time they start a tattoo. They should also wear gloves at all times.
If your tattoo artist gave you instructions on how to take care of your tattoo, follow those instructions closely. If they didn’t provide you with clear guidelines afterward, give them a call. They should be able to provide you with aftercare information.
In general, you should do the following to make sure the area heals properly:
- Remove the bandage 3 to 5 hours after you’ve gotten the tattoo.
- Wash your hands with antibacterial soap and water.
- Use a clean, dry washcloth or paper towel to pat the area (to dry it and to remove blood, serum, or excess pigment).
- Let the area air-dry for a few minutes. Don’t rub it dry — this can damage the skin.
- Put an ointment (not a lotion), such as Vaseline, on the area. Dab off the excess.
- Repeat these steps about 4 times a day for at least 4 days.
Once the tattooed area starts to form into scabs, use a moisturizer or lotion to keep your skin from getting too dry or damaged. Don’t scratch or pick at the skin. This can cause the area to heal improperly, which may make you more susceptible to infections.