Infected tattoos

November 26, 2010

Dealing with infected tattoos is no laughing matter. If you suspect your fresh body art has become infected, don’t ignore it. An infection that reaches the blood stream can be life threatening.

About Infected Tattoos

Getting a new tat is an elating experience, but that initial joy fades quickly when things go wrong. Infected tattoos are not all that rare, so it’s in your best interest to make sure your tattoo artist is properly licensed and operates out of a clean shop. This is your first and best opportunity to ensure you have a good experience, but it won’t provide total protection against developing an infection later on. It’s also important that you follow up on after care instructions and also learn how to recognize an infection before you commit to ink. A little education can go a long way toward preserving your health.

What Causes Infection

Tattooing creates thousands of tiny puncture wounds in your skin as the ink is delivered beneath the outer layers. Your skin is your first line of defense against bacterial invasion, so poking holes in it is like opening a door and inviting germs in. Therefore it’s extremely important to follow the after care instructions you receive from your artist to promote quick healing.
While some tattoo infections are the result of improper tattooing methods, many more infected tattoos can be attributed to poor follow up care by the person receiving the tat. Not keeping the area clean and restricting fresh air to the site result in conditions that promote bacterial growth. Allowing clothing to rub the area, failing to apply a proper ointment to create a protective barrier over the wound, and generally ignoring your new tat can all contribute to an infection.

The Difference Between Normal Healing and an Infection

Most tattoos look at least a little irritated during the healing period. After the first day, it’s important to wash the tat twice a day using a very mild soap, using just your fingertips to lightly smooth over the area. Once you’ve rinsed the area completely clean, you should pat it dry with a fresh paper towel. Avoid scrubbing to help ensure you don’t damage the tissue during this delicate period. This will also help you preserve your ink. Once the tat is dry, you should apply a thin layer of the type of ointment recommended by your tat artist.
The initial irritation should begin to subside in a few days as the needle punctures heal. During this time it’s normal to see light brownish scabbing. You’ll also likely develop a thin, whitish crust that comes from the clear lymph fluid secreted during the healing process. This is healthy, and shouldn’t be picked at or scraped off. The crust helps seal the skin from outside organisms that can cause infection, so it’s a good thing. If you notice any of the following signs, there’s a chance your tat is becoming infected.

    Watch for:

  • An increase, rather than a decrease in redness and irritation at the tattoo site
  • Heat radiating from the tattoo
  • More than minimal swelling
  • Any discharge that is cloudy, yellow or green
  • Any foul odor emanating from the tattoo
  • Above normal body temperature, typically anything above 99 degrees F
  • Muscle aches
  • General weakness

Some people with fresh tattoos report seeing small red bumps develop around the tat. More often than not, this is sign of an allergic reaction to the type of ointment used and not generally a sign of infection. Still, the bumps should be monitored in case they increase in size, and the ointment discontinued in favor of another product recommended by the artist.

Seeking Help

Bottom line, if you suspect your new tattoo has become infected, you need to seek help sooner rather than later. The first step is to return to your tattoo artist and ask him or her to take a look at the area and give you a professional opinion about its condition. Professional tattoo artists have seen enough infected tattoos to quickly recognize another one when they see it, and they can likely tell you what to do for the wound, as well as whether you should pursue further help from your physician. Some infections can be treated by simply keeping the wound clean so your immune system can do its job. In other cases, it will require antibiotics to kill the offending bacteria and microbes so the tat can finish healing. Allowing an infection to rage on is foolhardy because the bacteria can reach your bloodstream. Once the bacteria reach your heart, they can colonize and cause death, so take any infection seriously.
If the infection looks serious enough, your physician will likely want to draw blood for testing to determine just how far the infection goes and create a treatment plan based on that info.


To decrease your chance of getting infected tattoos:

* Choose a reputable artist/shop.
* Follow after care instruction to the letter.
* Watch closely for any sign of infection.
* Contact your artist immediately for an evaluation if you suspect a problem.
* Follow up with your physician for further care.

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