Can you get HIV from a tattoo or piercing?

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Body art, which includes tattooing and body piercing, has become increasingly popular among older teens and young adults. As the art form continues to move from the fringes to the mainstream, many have started to question whether it poses a risk of infection with blood-borne diseases such as HIV or hepatitis C.

Since tattooing and piercing both draw blood, this may seem like a reasonable concern to some.

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How transmission can occur

Tattoo artists create their designs by injecting ink into the second layer of a person’s skin, known as the dermis. To do this, they use a tattoo machine (called a gun) that pierces the skin with a collection of small needles at high speed. Body piercing, on the other hand, uses a single needle to pierce the skin.

Due to the damaged skin, some infections can theoretically be passed from client to client if the gun or needles are not properly disinfected. But do they do it?

Why transmission is unlikely

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of HIV from tattooing or piercing is considered low to negligible.

While the CDC admits that there is a theoretical risk of transmission, there is not yet a single documented case of HIV through any form of body art.

This is largely due to the fact that transmission can only occur if:

  1. A person who has a tattoo or a piercing has a high HIV viral load (which means there is a lot of virus in their blood).
  2. The person is bleeding heavily on the equipment.
  3. The material is not disinfected between clients.
  4. The blood from the contaminated equipment then enters the body of the next client in significant amounts for infection to occur.

In the context of body art, the likelihood of these conditions being met is incredibly slim. The risk of infection is nowhere near as great as, say, injection drug use in which blood infected with HIV is injected directly into a vein.

Persistent doubts remain

Despite this, some, including tattoo artists, remain genuinely concerned. As stated in Insurance Journal, a 27-year-old man who was denied service by a Utah tattoo parlor because he was HIV-positive filed a lawsuit against the tattoo parlor in 2017. The court ruled in favor of the man, citing that the statistically negligible risk of infection was not putting the tattooist at risk.

While the decision was fair, that doesn’t mean the risk is negligible outside of an approved trade fair. In fact, the likelihood of complications increases with unlicensed or informal artists.These include gang tattoos, tattoos done in prison, or piercings done between friends.

Especially in prison, tattoos are often done with multiple deep skin punctures using reused objects such as staples, paper clips and ink tubes from ballpoint pens. These factors increase the risk from unlikely to possible and put the person at risk for sometimes serious bacterial infections. Even then, if HIV has occurred, it is difficult to determine whether the infection was facilitated by unsterile body art, shared injection needles, or unprotected sex.

Regardless of the facility or location, unsanitary body art practices inherently increase the risk of blood-borne disease, particularly hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Symptoms of acute hepatitis can appear within two weeks to six months. Chronic hepatitis C infection can last for years and cause serious damage to the liver.

A word from Verywell

If you are considering getting a tattoo or a piercing, ask salon staff what procedures they use to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood-borne infections. You can also request proof that the artist performing the procedure is licensed and the license is up to date.

You may also consider contacting your local health department to learn about current regulations regarding safety in tattoo or piercing parlors. While state laws can vary widely, the majority of states agree on one thing: age limits. Currently, 38 states prohibit piercing or tattooing minors without parental permission.


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