Tattoo infections are a more common occurrence than many would suspect. However, the severity of the infection can range from a minor condition that requires minimal attention to a life-threatening concern. Infected tattoos are basically wounds that develop when permanent ink is injected into the sub-dermal layers of the skin.
After the tattoo has been applied, it can easily become infected and highly susceptible to numerous bacteria and viruses, causing significant health problems and endangerment to a healthy life. In severe cases, when red streaks appear at the affected site or the surrounding tissue the infection usually requires immediate medical attention and a hospital emergency room, urgent care center or doctor's office. Minor infections can usually be treated at home using proper hygiene techniques and over-the-counter healing products.
Who Is at Risk for a Tattoo Infection?
Tattoos can become effective for a variety of reasons including a lack of training, self-care, or hygiene issues. Individuals who have the greatest risk of developing a tattoo infection include:
- Individuals who failed to follow the instructions provided by the tattoo artist in providing necessary skin care during the healing process.
- Tattoo artistry performed by a poorly trained or uncertified artist/technician.
- Inking a tattoo on an unclean area of the body.
- The lack of using sterilized equipment, contaminated or unclean needles or failing to wash hands or wear gloves while inking a tattoo.
- Failing to provide sufficient fresh air to the new tattoo and surrounding area to hasten the healing process and prevent creating an ideal environment for infections.
- Wearing clothing that will irritate the tattoo that can slow down or stop the healing process caused by rubbing, brushing or scraping the new tattoo area.
- Environmental exposure in the tattoo area that has been bruised and pricked while inking a new tattoo. This exposure can allow airborne bacteria to enter the damaged skin area while the artistry is being applied.
- Using infected creams and moisturizers that might soothe the skin but expose the area to infections.
- Swimming in contaminated water before the wound has a chance to fully heal. The contaminated water could harbor dangerous bacteria that can spread between different individuals.
The most common symptoms associated with infected tattoos include:
- Swelling – Every tattoo will produce some level of swelling. However, if infected, the affected area will appear puffy and distorted. Without treatment, the swelling can easily spread to the surrounding tissue or further as the infection travels to other areas of the body.
- Fever – Without immediate medical attention, the infection can easily produce mild to severe fever. Anyone with the body temperature over 100° should seek out immediate medical attention.
- Inflammation – Red or pink inflammation appearing at the affected tattoo site is often indicative of the severe inflammation to the area. This is also true if the skin temperature on or around the tattoo is hotter than other areas of the body. Normally, the inflammation should not last any longer than a day or two. Inflammation lasting longer is usually an indicator that the skin might be contaminated where the individual will require the services of an emergency center.
- Pain – Every new tattoo will produce discomfort and tenderness in the area of the tattoo and surrounding tissue. However, if the pain does not go away or intensifies in the days after getting the tattoo, it could be a sign of the initial stages of an infection that would require immediate medical attention.
- Fluid and Pus Discharge - Tiny amounts of clear liquid appearing with small spots of blood is a normal part of the healing process. However, if the area begins producing greenish-yellowish pus or discharges of excessive blood is highly indicative of a serious infection that requires medical attention.
- Foul Odor – Infections are caused by bad bacteria that expel foul smells.
- Swollen Lymph Nodes – If nodes in around the area of the tattoo begin to swell, immediate medical attention is often necessary because it is usually an indicator of the staph infection, which means the body's immune system is actively fighting a serious infection that could easily spread through the bloodstream causing sepsis (blood infection).
- Abscesses – An abscess or blister can easily form at the affected site indicating a severe infection is present. In addition to extensive discomfort and pain, the blister abscess can easily burst or become bruised before the area has had time to fully heal.
- Discolored Streaks – Noticeable red or purple streaks emanating from the original tattoo can be an indicator that immediate medical attention is required because the infection is likely led to blood poisoning (sepsis), which is a life-threatening condition.
At some point during the healing process, the tattoo will begin feeling itchy due to the process of irritating the skin while applying permanent ink. However, if an infection is present, the affected area will appear inflamed and feel significantly warmer than the surrounding tissue, indicating that a serious infectious problem is developing.
In the days after receiving attached to it is important to stay away from second individuals who may be suffering from infections, skin disorders, the flu, or a cold. In addition, it is important to follow proper hygiene and stay away from dirty bed linen and on hygienic clothing that could provide the ideal breeding ground for dangerous microbes including viruses and bacteria that can easily cause an infected tattoo.
Treating an Infected Tattoo
Diagnosing and treating an infected tattoo is fairly straightforward and based on the severity of the infection and the location of the newly installed permanent ink. However, the doctor may choose to do extensive blood tests to rule out methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), staph infections or other serious conditions that will require unique antibiotics and other medications so the patient can fully recover.
In addition to taking a comprehensive patient medical history to determine allergic reactions to medications, the doctor will perform a complete physical examination to determine the level and severity of the infected area. The doctor will look for certain signs that include:
- Small red bumps (folliculitis) appearing on and around the tattoo that cannot be healed by typical antibiotic treatments.
- Painful blisters and large boils that are caused by the formation of yellow or green pus. While these areas can be healed, they often recur especially when they are caused by certain bacteria and viruses including methicillin-resistant staphylococcal aureus.
- Necrotizing fasciitis is a specific form of infection that attacks the tattoo and consumes the skin layers between the top of the skin and the muscle.
The obvious signs of a tattoo that became infected will usually remain for many months after the infection has been treated with antibiotics. This is due to the buildup of the bacterium in and around the affected site. The doctor will usually prescribe antibiotics including antibiotic pills, topical creams or liquids like amoxicillin.
In severe cases, the patient will likely need to undergo intravenous injections of the drug, especially with infections that refused to respond properly to traditional antibiotic medications.
While there is topical antibacterial at-home remedies like tea tree oil, it is important to seek out medical attention before a simple infection becomes a life-threatening problem.