Tattoos can often be an appealing method of self-expression, but due to the nature of the procedure, they may also pose a high risk for complications. Permanent tattoos require mechanized needles that puncture the skin to inject ink into the second layer of skin. 

Any procedure that involves penetrating the skin carries the risk of introducing foreign matter into your body. Knowing what to look for and when to seek help is essential to avoiding a life-threatening infection.

What Causes Tattoo Infections?

Tattoo establishments can pose a higher risk for infectious diseases such as Hep B, Hep C, and MRSA. There are many reasons that you might be more susceptible to complications when getting a tattoo. Researching before committing to a tattoo parlor is the first way to ensure the reliability of a particular artist. 

Risk factors include:

  • Getting a tattoo on an unclean area of the body
  • Not following the instructions of the artists both before and after application
  • The artist wears faulty personal protective equipment
  • Using contaminated moisturizers during the healing process
  • Preventing the tattoo to heal correctly by limiting airflow, rubbing or scraping the area with clothing, or sustaining injuries 

The risk of infection increases drastically if the artists are uncertified, poorly trained, or use unsterilized equipment. 

What are the Signs of an Infection?

Although most tattoos will result in minor inflammation around the inked areas, there are a few warning signs that could indicate an infection. Symptoms can include:

  • Worsened swelling
  • Increasing pain
  • Chills or sweats
  • Drainage
  • Fever, and
  • Rashes or bumps.

Particularly if the area begins to look distorted or discolored, it is vital to seek medical attention if any symptoms appear.

Itching can be a common experience after getting a tattoo, as the skin experiences irritation during the procedure. However, if the skin begins to feel warmer than surrounding tissue or the itching does not go away, you may be developing an infection.

Staph infections are one of the more dangerous risks of getting tattoos. Although treatable, prescription medication may not be effective if the staph bacteria become resistant to regular antibiotics. Untreated staph infections can lead to sepsis, toxic shock syndrome, and arthritis should it enter the bloodstream and internal organs. Staph infection symptoms can include swelling, muscle aches and pains, extreme thirst, sores, and fever. 

How Do You Treat an Infected Tattoo?

The cause of infection determines the treatment plan. In some cases, minor rashes and irritation can be treated with over-the-counter ointments. If further attention is needed, a doctor may conduct a biopsy of the tissue to determine what kind of bacteria is involved. Antibiotics may be necessary for up to several weeks or months, depending on the severity.

Antibiotics will treat most bacterial infections unless the bacteria is a resistant strain such as MRSA. MRSA is highly contagious and can spread by coming into contact with an object or surface that has been touched by an infected individual. In the case of a more aggressive infection, the infected tissue may need to be removed by a surgeon.

How Can I Prevent a Tattoo Infection ?

If you’ve decided on getting a tattoo, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from complications. The most critical information to know is whether you are allergic to tattoo ink, which you can verify by requesting a list of ingredients from your tattoo artist. It is important to note that artists are responsible for purchasing reliable products as the FDA does not regulate ink. If the ink manufacturer provides the artist with an unsafe product, it may be an issue of product liability.

Selecting a reputable and licensed tattoo parlor will help ensure that proper safety protocols are in place. As the client, you can request additional information about how and when the artists sterilize their instruments. Your technician should wear gloves at all times and use a new, clean needle every time they start a tattoo.

No Matter How Reputable the Parlor, Tattoos Can Result in Infections

Make sure that you take precautions both before and after getting the tattoo. Follow the care instructions carefully and do not get a tattoo if you believe you may be allergic. If you regularly experience skin sensitivities, you may first want to consult with a dermatologist.

According to the State of Oklahoma, anyone performing tattooing must have a state license, operate out of a licensed shop, and maintain current training certifications in bloodborne pathogens, first aid, and CPR. The Oklahoma State Department of Health provides both artist and establishment license verifications. Tattoo parlors should be compliant with public health codes to avoid injuries and workplace accidents. However, it is crucial to note that the FDA does not regulate tattoo ink.

If you develop an infection as a result of getting a tattoo, consult with your healthcare professional. You should also notify the tattoo artist and parlor so that they can take necessary precautions. Asking for the brand and batch number of the ink used for your tattoo may help determine the source of the infection. Informing other consumers as well as the FDA is critical to preventing further infections.