June 8, 2017 – Most people know that dirty tattoo needles can spread infections like hepatitis C.
But it is less well known that the wound itself can become infected, with serious consequences for a man who died from a tattoo infection after swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.
The man, identified as a resident of Texas in a study conducted in the British medical journal, had received the tattoo on his right leg and went swimming five days later. He was admitted to hospital three days later and tested positive for Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria found in coastal waters.
The man also suffered from chronic liver disease, which hampered his recovery. He died about two months later.
Nicholas Hendren, MD, the lead author of the study, says that while infections from new tattoos aren’t common, they’re not uncommon.
A recent study found that 3.2% of people who received tattoos reported at least one infected tattoo.
Hendren says the Texas man’s case was “definitely on the extreme side.” People are more likely to get MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, among other more common bacteria, he says.
Hendren tells his patients that getting a tattoo is similar to getting stitches, and you wouldn’t want to go swimming in a pond after getting stitches. He tells people to avoid swimming in lakes, rivers and ponds, salt water and swimming pools, and to avoid rubbing excessively until the tattoo has healed.
Hendren says a tattoo is healed when the scab falls off. Most tattoos take an average of one to several weeks to heal, says Doris Day, MD, a New Yorker dermatologist.
State and local health departments regulate tattoo parlors. A 2015 tattoo regulations study found that only seven states specifically required their public health department to approve tattoo aftercare instructions. Seven states are unlicensed and the rest have varying requirements. Most leave the follow-up instructions to the tattoo artist.
Hendren recommends using a licensed tattoo parlor to get a tattoo, claiming that it helps reduce the chances of liver infection. The most common is hepatitis B, along with other infections like hepatitis C and HIV.
Day says aftercare is important while you wait for a tattoo to heal.
âWash with soap and water,â Day says. “Apply topical ointment and a non-stick dressing during the day and leave uncovered overnight.” Remove the plastic wrap when you get home, allowing the area to breathe. The plastic wrap retains heat and humidity, which allows bacteria to thrive.
Both doctors recommend seeing a doctor immediately if you notice any of these signs:
- For tattoos that are on your arms and legs, a red linear band or streak grows and stretches out from the area.
- The pain around the tattoo worsens five to seven days later.
- Discharge coming from the region.
- Have a fever, a sign of infection.