What is a tattoo infection?
Tattoo infections are skin infections that can occur in people with tattoos. Most are limited to the area of the tattoo. In rare cases, the infection can become severe or spread to other organs.
What types of infections can tattoos cause?
Two common forms are:
- Superficial infections that affect only the outer layer of skin, such as impetigo.
- Deep bacterial infections, such as erysipelas, cellulitis and sepsis.
How do tattoo infections happen?
Getting a tattoo involves a mechanical needle depositing ink deep into your skin. There, it launches an immune system response. This process permanently traps ink within your skin cells. In some people, it also causes a tattoo infection.
How fast can a tattoo get infected?
Some infections occur shortly after getting a tattoo. Others develop over time, and you might not notice them until months later.
Can tattoo infections occur if I go to a licensed tattoo artist and reputable tattoo shop?
Any time you receive a tattoo, there’s a risk of infection. Even if you go to an experienced tattoo artist and the shop looks clean and sterile, it can happen. There’s also a risk of infection with at-home tattoo kits and ceremonial tattoos that are part of cultural celebrations.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes tattoo infections?
Common causes include reactions to tattoo ink and ink diluted with nonsterile water.
Reactions to tattoo ink
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate tattoo ink. Even containers marked “sterile” can have bacteria and other substances in them. Contamination can happen after the ink leaves the manufacturer, even if the container is sealed.
Reactions can also stem from the ink itself. Ink is often made from or includes substances that may be harmful, including:
- Animal-based additives.
- Calligraphy ink.
- Chemicals, such as pH stabilizers and coating agents.
- Metal salts.
- Pigments used in printer toner and car paint.
Diluting ink with water helps tattoo artists achieve a specific color. But microorganisms in tap and distilled water can lead to infections. Using a newly opened container of sterile water can lower this risk.
Which types of bacteria can cause a tattoo infection?
Common types of bacteria found in contaminated tattoo ink or nonsterile water include:
- Nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM).
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
- Staphylococcus aureus.
- Streptococcus spp.
Are there other potential causes of tattoo infections?
Other potential sources of infection include:
- Nonsterile needles.
- Tattooing skin that hasn’t been cleaned.
- Tattoo shop or artist not following sterilization practices.
- Secondary infections that occur while your skin is healing from getting a tattoo.
What does an infected tattoo look like?
Signs of a tattoo infection may appear across the entire tattoo or only within specific colors. They can include:
- Bumps on your skin (papules) that sometimes contain pus (pustules).
- Nodules, bumps on or below your skin that are larger than papules.
What does an infected tattoo feel like?
If you have a tattoo infection, you may experience:
What are the potential complications of tattoo infections?
People with severe tattoo infections are at risk for complications that may include:
- Organ failure, which occurs when your kidneys, liver or other organs can no longer do their job.
- Septic shock (sepsis).
Diagnosis and Tests
How are tattoo infections diagnosed?
Healthcare providers can often confirm an infection based on symptoms alone. Lab tests may be necessary to determine which bacteria is causing it. This helps you receive the appropriate therapies for your needs.
Management and Treatment
How do you treat an infected tattoo?
Antibiotics are a common treatment for tattoo infections. Depending on the diagnosis and severity, it may take multiple antibiotics to clear the infection. Many people need to be on these drugs for up to six weeks.
For severe infections, intravenous (IV) antibiotics may be necessary. Surgery may also be required for infections that don’t respond to antibiotics. It can take more than one procedure to remove all the affected skin.
Is there anything else I should do if I get a tattoo infection?
If you received your tattoo at a shop, it’s helpful to let them know. They might be able to offer information to your healthcare provider about the type of ink used. The shop may also be able to prevent other people from experiencing an infection.
You can also contact the FDA’s Medwatch program. This program investigates issues and works with other agencies to advise the public, when necessary, of medical product safety concerns.
What can I do to lower my risk of a tattoo infection?
Seeking services from a licensed tattoo artist and shop may lower your infection risk. Check with your state department of health about complaint activity against the shop.
You should also ask your tattoo artist about the kind of ink they use and sterilization practices. They should wear gloves at all times and use sterile wipes to clean your skin before, during and after your tattoo. You should also receive and follow detailed instructions about caring for your tattoo while it heals.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the prognosis for people with an infected tattoo?
People with mild to moderate infections often make a full recovery. But it can take several months.
What is important to know about living with a tattoo infection?
In addition to infections, tattoos can cause other forms of irritation, as well as chronic skin disease. If you notice changes in the look or feel of your tattooed skin, contact your healthcare provider.
Tattoos can cause chronic skin diseases, such as:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
A tattoo infection is a skin infection that can occur in people with tattoos. There can be many causes, including contaminated ink or water. You can lower your risk by going to a licensed tattoo shop and asking about their sterilization practices. If you notice signs of an infection, seek medical treatment right away.
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