Tattoos are more popular than ever, with nearly half of Americans under 40 having at least one tattoo in 2024.
However, getting a tattoo is not without risks, and you should be aware of the potential dangers and how to prevent them before you get inked.
One of the most common risks of getting a tattoo is infection. Tattooing involves puncturing the skin with needles and injecting ink into the dermis, which can introduce bacteria, fungi, viruses or other pathogens into the body. These can cause various types of infections, ranging from mild skin irritations to serious systemic or life threatening diseases.
Symptoms of Tattoo Infection
Some of the symptoms of tattoo-related infections include:
- Redness, swelling, pain, itching or burning around the tattoo site
- Rashes, blisters, bumps or nodules on or near the tattoo
- Fever, chills, nausea, vomiting or fatigue
- Pus, blood or foul-smelling discharge from the tattoo
- Red streaks or swollen lymph nodes near the tattoo
One of the most notorious bacteria that can contaminate tattoo ink is nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM), which can cause stubborn and hard-to-treat infections that may require surgery or long-term antibiotic therapy. NTM is related to the bacteria that causes tuberculosis and can be found in soil and water.
Check this article for a deeper dive on tattoo related infections.
FDA Tattoo Ink Recalls 2023
The FDA has issued several recalls and safety alerts for tattoo inks that were found to be contaminated with NTM and other microorganisms between 2003 and 2023. The FDA also released a draft guidance in June 2023 to reduce the use of pathogen-contaminated tattoo ink by improving the manufacturing practices and testing methods of ink producers. Interestingly, the type of tattoo ink that your artist chooses can have a siginificant effect on the chances of contracting a serious infections like HIV via the transmission of bloodborne pathogens.
Another risk of getting a tattoo is injury. Tattooing can cause bleeding, bruising, scarring or allergic reactions. Some people may also experience nerve damage, keloids or granulomas from tattooing. Tattooing can also interfere with medical procedures such as MRI scans, blood tests or skin grafts.
Bad Tattoo Design Choice
In addition, some tattoos may turn out to be non-medical disasters due to poor design choices, spelling errors, low-quality workmanship or regret (No Regerts!).
Some examples of tattoo disasters include:
- Getting a portrait of a celebrity that looks nothing like them
- Getting a name of a lover that you later break up with
- Getting a slogan or quote that is grammatically incorrect or has a double meaning
- Getting a symbol or image that has an offensive or inappropriate connotation
- Getting a tattoo that fades, blurs or changes color over time
How can you avoid these risks and get a safe and satisfying tattoo?
Here are some tips to follow:
- Do your research. Choose a reputable and licensed tattoo artist who follows proper hygiene and sterilization procedures. Check their portfolio and reviews online or ask for recommendations from friends or family. Avoid getting tattoos from unlicensed parlors, street vendors or amateurs. Most importantly – ensure your artist has a current Bloodborne Pathogens Certification for tattoo artists.
- Consult your doctor. If you have any medical conditions or allergies that may affect your healing process or increase your risk of infection, talk to your doctor before getting a tattoo. You should also inform your doctor if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or taking any medications.
- Follow the tattoo aftercare instructions. Your tattoo artist should give you detailed instructions on how to care for your new tattoo. This may include washing it gently with soap and water, applying an antibiotic ointment or moisturizer, covering it with a bandage or plastic wrap, avoiding sun exposure or swimming, and avoiding scratching or picking at it.
- Watch for signs of infection. If you notice any symptoms of infection such as redness, swelling, pain, fever or pus around your tattoo site, seek medical attention immediately. Do not try to treat it yourself with home remedies or over-the-counter products.
- Think before you ink. Choose a design that reflects your personality and style and that you will not regret later. Consider the size, placement and color of your tattoo carefully. Avoid getting tattoos on impulse or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Tattoos can be a beautiful form of self-expression and artistry if done safely and responsibly. By following these tips, you can reduce your risk of infection, injury or disaster and enjoy your tattoo for years to come.