Tattoo infection: symptoms, treatment and prevention

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Having a tattoo can often lead to minor inflammation. However, depending on the circumstances, there may also be a risk of infection and other types of reaction.

According to a 2017 survey, 40% of people between the ages of 18 and 69 in the United States have at least one tattoo. Additionally, 1 in 4 people with tattoos have more than one, while 19% were considering getting a tattoo.

A 2016 to study who examined the risk of infection from tattoos found that 0.5-6% of adults with tattoos had infectious complications.

If a tattoo causes severe symptoms or pain that lasts more than a few days, it may be a sign of an infection that requires medical attention.

Find out with this article on tattoo infections and reactions, prevention tips and what to do if one or the other occurs.

When a person gets a tattoo from a licensed and reputable tattoo artist in a salon, they may experience pain, redness, and swelling. As the tattoo heals, itching may occur.

With basic care and good hygiene, most new tattoos heal within weeks, but some people may develop an infection that requires medical attention.

Symptoms of a tattoo infection include:

  • a rash, redness, or bumps in the tattoo area
  • a fever
  • worsening swelling
  • purulent drainage
  • increased pain
  • tremors, chills and sweats

The ink injection introduces substances into the body that it does not normally encounter. Whether it is the components of the ink or bacteria, viruses or other pathogens, there is a risk of infection or reaction.

Bacteria and viruses

Contaminated equipment and ink can introduce bacteria to the wound site.

Various species of bacteria can cause infection after tattooing, including:

  • Staphylococcus
  • Streptococcus

Some of these pathogens respond to antibiotics, but others do not. If a person develops an infection and does not seek medical help, it can lead to complications, such as deeper infections and, in rare cases, sepsis, which can be life-threatening.

Anyone who shows signs of infection, including fever and chills, should see a doctor.

Conditions that can result from a bacterial or viral infection include:

contaminated ink

In some cases, using contaminated ink or ink diluted with unsterilized water can cause infection.

An epidemic, which appeared in January 2012, involved the bacterium Mycobacterium chelonae, a cause of skin and soft tissue infections. It affected 19 people in various US states.

Symptoms included a persistent rash with redness, swelling and bumps in the tattoo area.

In this case, various artists had used contaminated pre-diluted ink before purchasing it.

Other reactions

Infection is relatively rare after a tattoo, but various other reactions can occur. These reactions include:

  • New or worsening symptoms of an existing skin condition, such as psoriasis.
  • Skin reactions, such as allergic contact dermatitis and photoallergic dermatitis.
  • An inflamed, red rash and flaky, scaly skin, depending on the reaction.

Learn more about psoriasis and tattoos.

ink effect

Tattoo ink is made up of metals and other chemicals, and they are what give color. For example, red tattoo ink may contain mercury sulfide, while blue ink contains cobalt aluminate.

Reactions to tattoo ink can vary depending on the pigment it contains.

Potential reactions may result in:

  • granuloma or raised red bumps around the tattoo
  • lichenoid reactions or itchy patches of skin as in lichen planus
  • pseudolymphomatous reactions, involving purple or red nodules and plaques

Is there a link with skin cancer?

The authors of a 2014 study note that there have been cases of overlap between squamous cell carcinoma and reactions at the site of a tattoo, raising concerns about skin cancer.

A review as of 2018 concludes that there is insufficient evidence to prove a link between tattoos and skin cancers. However, the authors recommend reporting any cases of skin cancer around tattoos to national skin cancer registries.

Also, some of the skin changes that may occur may be similar to those of skin cancer, making it more difficult to diagnose cancer.

the Food and drug administration (FDA) note that they have “not approved any pigment for injection into the skin for cosmetic purposes”.

Tattooing can lead to infection by introducing bacteria, viruses or other unwanted substances into the body through broken skin.

Factors that can increase this risk when a person has a tattoo include:

  • using contaminated ink
  • use a do it yourself tattoo kit
  • unsanitary practices in unlicensed tattoo parlors
  • improper wound care after the procedure
  • a weakened immune system before the procedure

Choosing a fully licensed tattoo parlor, with a trained and experienced tattoo artist, can reduce the risk. However, this will not account for all possible triggers.

An individual may still have a higher risk due to a pre-existing condition, such as eczema, or ink where the manufacturing process has caused contamination.

What happens to tattoo ink when it gets into your skin? Learn all about it with this article.

Treatments that can help relieve inflammation and discomfort after a tattoo include:

Over-the-counter medications: Tylenol and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), for example, can relieve pain and inflammation.

Antihistamine drugs: Benadryl, for example, can reduce the symptoms of a minor allergic reaction, such as small red bumps or a mild rash around the tattoo site.

Topical creams: A hypoallergenic and fragrance-free cream can prevent the skin from drying out.

Other aftercare tips include:

  • keep the site clean by washing gently with soap and water
  • cover the tattoo site with a cool, sterile gauze or bandage
  • wear gloves while sleeping to avoid scratching a new tattoo

These measures can help reduce the risk of developing an infection.

When to consult a doctor

If there are more serious or persistent signs of infection, the person should see a doctor.

A doctor may take one or more of the following actions:

  • take a skin sample, or biopsy, to test for bacteria or viruses
  • prescribe oral or topical antibiotics
  • recommend hospitalization in severe cases

The FDA Remark that some people have to use antibiotics for several months. They add that if a person has an allergic reaction, the symptoms may not go away because the tattoo ink is permanent.

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Finding a reputable tattoo artist can help minimize the risk of infection.

Anyone considering getting a tattoo should choose a licensed and reputable tattoo artist and salon.

People who should ask their doctor before going ahead are those with weakened immune systems or who already have a blood or skin condition.

Questions to ask the tattoo artist before making the final decision to get a tattoo include:

  • How long has the tattoo artist been practicing?
  • How long have they been in business in the area?
  • What is their reputation and are there any online reviews?
  • How clean are all the facilities, including the lobby?
  • How likely is the ink to cause a skin reaction?
  • Does the technician always use new needles, sterilized equipment and unique ink containers?
  • Will they use a sterile swab, rinse, or antiseptic wash to clean the area before starting the tattoo?
  • Will they wear sterile gloves throughout the procedure?

Anyone who is not comfortable with a room, the equipment or the performer should choose another location.

Any activity that compromises the skin barrier or introduces foreign bodies into the body increases the risk of infection or other reaction. Many people experience mild inflammation, but if symptoms persist, a person should see their doctor.

Antibiotic treatment can usually resolve a tattoo-related infection. Without treatment, complications from a skin infection, such as deeper infection and, rarely, sepsis can occur in some people. When this happens, it can be life threatening.

Before deciding on a tattoo, people should learn as much as possible about possible short-term effects and how to prevent a problem.

They may also want to consider the possibility of long term effects, although, as the FDA points out, the details of these are still unclear.

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