Infected Tattoos: Fact and Fiction

Signs of an infected tattoo

The biggest fear of getting a new tattoo, whether this is your first tattoo or your twenty-second, is infection. In the world of body modification the most common ways to contract infections are contaminated instruments and needles, unsanitary tattooing conditions, or improper aftercare.

A common myth about cross contamination and infection is that you can contract HIV while being tattooed. According to the Center for Disease Control, there has NEVER been any recorded or known instances of HIV transmission via tattoos or body piercings(1). HIV is a very fragile virus and it cannot survive long outside of the human body. Unlike syringes, tattoo needles have a solid core, so no blood or contaminants get inside of the needle. When you are tattooed or pierced it is only YOUR skin that is being worked on and only YOUR blood that is being exposed(2), so it is only your blood or bodily fluids you are being exposed to. You are only at risk of infection if you are in contact with blood or bodily fluids from an HIV infected individual. As long as the tattoo parlor or studio is reputable for its sanitation practices and used single use needles and tubes, you are in very little danger of contracting anything at all.

The two most common types of tattoo infections are caused by Staphylococci. As stated before, a viral infection is extremely unlikely, but a severe bacterial infection is a much more likely result of an unsanitary environment or unclean tools(3).

MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is the first type of Staphylococci infection and is located on the actual surface of the skin where the tattoo was placed. This infection is more readily noticed and can be taken care of quickly.

MRSA has a greater likelihood of contraction compared to any other virus or blood born pathogen. There are many ways to contract MRSA, but in the body modification world the most common way is from tool to client. Again, as long as you are in a sterile tattoo parlor with an artist that follows the Universal Precautions guidelines and CDC codes then you have successfully eliminated the exposure to infectious bacteria almost entirely(4). Prolonged infection on the skin’s surface can cause granulomas and create the likelihood of increased scarring buildup called keloids.

Cellulitis is the second kind of Staphylococci infection, which can be more serious and may take a longer amount of time to really notice. It involves an infection within the skin and under the tattoo. Below the skin infections cause intense pain and can eventually, if not taken care of by a medical professional immediately, seep into your lymph nodes, blood stream, bones and joints. When your tattoo is healing and sealing up with a new layer of skin pay very close attention. If the area begins to heal and there is still a large amount of pain and swelling you may be actually locking an infection into your body. This can cause gangrene, full body infection, abscessing, or even Necrotizing Fasciitis, commonly called by the media “flesh-eating bacteria”(5).

The signs of a tattoo infection are mostly noticeable within the first day or even the first few hours. An infection usually begins with redness, slight to extreme tenderness, and swelling. With tattoos that begin to advance in stages of infection there will be red lines or splotches going up and down that area of the body. This tells you that the infection is beginning to travel through your bloodstream, which will eventually reach your heart if not taken care of properly. The infected area will be hot to the touch and will most likely be oozing large amounts of plasma in the form of a murky yellow liquid. The area will then begin to puss a nasty brown, green, or red color with the onset of fever and enlarged lymph nodes.

If you are prone to sensitive and easily irritated skin, have had a previous health issue with your auto immune system, or have diabetes you surely want to consult your doctor or medical health care professional prior to getting a tattoo(6). Your likelihood of infection is much greater if any of these issues pertain to you. If you already have an existing virus or diseases, you should advise your artist. Not only are you at extreme risk for infection but you are also putting the artist’s health in danger.

It is crucial to know that the studio and artists are following correct and proper sanitation practices throughout the entire tattooing process. This includes rendering sterile needles and clean instruments along with using and autoclave. Each new customer should receive separately packaged and sterilized products for use on the tattoo. To ensure your safety, ask to view the autoclave and also watch the artist extract all of the sterilized needles and tubes as he/she set up their station prior to tattooing you(7). Understand that any instrument that touches the skin will surely come into contact with plasma and blood.

Now that you have verified or researched that your studio is sterile, it is up to you to follow the necessary aftercare instructions and procedures. Aftercare is just as important as ensuring you are in a clean environment. Be sure to check out “H2Ocean Tattoo Aftercare Tips & Protocol” for the proper aftercare tips and instructions.

Some other reasons for tattoo complications and/or infection are as follows:

Tattoo allergic reactionAllergic reactions- Red dyes used in tattoo inks have the highest risk for creating skin irritation. You may not have a reaction for years, or you may react immediately. Red dye reactions may come in the form of raised bumpy areas on the tattoo where the pigment was placed, an itchy rash on or around the tattoo, or even large amounts of continuous scarring over the area pigment was used on the skin.

Tattoo MRI burnPossible MRI Interference- In very rare cases those whom undergo a magnetic resonance imaging exam (MRI) may experience swelling or a stinging sensation during or after the MRI. Some ink brands include small amounts of metal fragments as an ingredient in their inks as a color additive which can interfere with the image quality of that procedure.

Works Cited

  1. Basic Information about HIV and AIDS | Topics | CDC HIV/AIDS.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. <>.
  2. Rec.arts.bodyart: Tattoo FAQ 3/9–Sanitation.” Internet FAQ Archives – Online Education – Web. 6 Dec. 2011. <>.
  3. Tattoos Linked to Deadly Infection.” WebMD – Better Information. Better Health. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. <>.
  4. Reid, Rachel. “Tatoos Are A Source of MRSA Infection Too | MRSAid Blog.” MRSAid Blog | MRSAid Is a Novel, Non-antibiotic System for Nasal Bacterial Decolonization to Reduce the Incidence of Hospital-acquired Infections (HAI’s). Web. 6 Dec. 2011. <>.
  5. Cellulitis – What Causes Cellulitis?” THE MEDICAL NEWS | from News-Medical.Net – Latest Medical News and Research from Around the World. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. <>.
  6. Signs of a Skin Infection after a Tattoo or Body Piercing.” WebMD – Better Information. Better Health. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. <>.
  7. Beauty & Body Art.” Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit. Web.6 Dec. 2011. <>.
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