Tattooing has come a long way in recent years and many regulations have been put into place. Tattoo shops used to be known as dirty, grimy places that would only give you an infectious disease. These days, any self-respecting tattoo shop is clean, professional, and follows all health codes. Tattooing has gone from dangerous and risky to relatively safe, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. Many people are left wondering if their tattoo is infected. Getting a tattoo creates an open wound on your body and needs to be treated accordingly. One of the biggest risks and most common concerns regarding tattooing is an infection. If a tattoo becomes infected it could become very dangerous if left untreated. Once you get your tattoo and begin the healing process, it is important to monitor it closely for infection and contact your doctor at the first sign of any.

How can you tell if a tattoo is infected? Severe redness, swelling, irritation, and high fever are some of the most common signs that your tattoo may be infected. It is important to note that mild swelling and redness are normal and expected, so it is crucial that you monitor the tattoo closely during healing.

There are many risks that come with getting a tattoo, but infection is the biggest and most common concern for most. Tattoos that are applied poorly and/or neglected during the healing time are likely to get infected. Infections can be easy to spot if you are paying attention. They are also easy to prevent if you acquire the tattoo from a professional and follow the aftercare instructions carefully.

Biggest Signs of Infection

If you are new to getting tattoos it is important to have a conversation with your artist about infection. There are many signs of infection that you can be paying attention to, but you also need to take note of the severity. There are a lot of things that are common and normal and are only a cause for concern when they become extreme or fail to get better after an extended period of time. If you are ever questioning anything, the first step is to get in contact with either your doctor or your artist. They will be able to tell you if there is a problem or not.

  • Severe or prolonged pain/swelling/redness. Some mild pain, redness, and swelling are normal – expected even. It is when one or all of these things become extreme or persistent.
  • A fever. Especially if the fever reaches 102F, infection is probable.
  • Muscle aches. Painful and aching muscles all over the body.
  • Bumps. Red bumps that are hard and/or raised may appear if an infection is developing.
  • Thirst. If you have an extreme and seemingly unquenchable thirst.
  • Sores. In some cases, sores may appear with an infection. These will usually either release or at least contain a thick fluid that is either white or yellow.
  • Nausea/Vomiting/Diarrhea. These are some additional signs of infection.

These are the most common signs of a developing or worsening infection. If any of these begin to occur it is imperative that you take immediate action. Even if it is a false alarm, it is better to be safe than sorry. No respectful tattoo shop or artist will be upset with you for asking questions or requesting help, even if it doesn’t turn out to be serious. As you get more and more tattoos, monitoring for these things yourself will become easier.

Bacterial Infections

Fresh tattoos can be at risk for bacterial infections, as these are typically spread through contaminated equipment and ink. There is very little risk of bacterial infections occurring if you got your tattoo from a clean and professional shop that used sterile equipment. Even with the best efforts by all parties though, there is still a risk factor.

The most common bacterial infections to be associated with tattoos are Staphylococcus aureus and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections. This is because Staphylococcus bacteria are such a common cause for skin infections in general. Your skin will become more susceptible right after getting a tattoo.

Many forms of the bacteria are treatable with regular antibiotics, with the exception of some strains – known as the MRSA infections – that have become resistant to most antibiotics. These will be more difficult to treat if contracted.

Those with an MRSA infection will usually experience severe body pain, a high fever, pneumonia, and some immune-related conditions like arthritis. These symptoms generally begin to appear one to two weeks after exposure to the bacteria.

Viral Infections

There are many types of viral infections that can be passed on from a contagious or contaminated source when the skin has been broken. Needles and other equipment that has not been cleaned are usually the culprits, which is why it is a concern when getting tattoos. As with bacterial infections, the risk is extremely low if the tattoo shop and artist you use follow all safety regulations, use the proper equipment, and keep everything clean.  

There are a few viral infections that can potentially be associated with tattoos:

  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C
  • HIV
  • Viral warts
  • Herpes simplex virus

Ink Toxicity

A study done in 2016 found that contamination rates reaching 10 percent or more are not uncommon in tattoo inks. Especially with tattoos being such a growing trend, it is crucial that you find a reputable and transparent shop. Do your research and make sure you find a place that only uses top quality inks.

In addition to contamination, there are some people who will be allergic to the ink itself. This is not necessarily due to contamination, but it is not an uncommon problem. The most common allergen are molecules in the ink called haptens. They are mostly found in red, green, and blue ink.  

Unfortunately, allergic reactions to ink are often quite severe. It can cause blistering wounds that will usually require medical attention. They will become itchy, hard, and thick.

Preventing Infection

The best thing you can do to prevent and minimize the risk of infection is to find a shop that is licensed and reputable. There are a few steps you can take and things to look out for that will tell you if a shop is good to use:

  • Only consider shops that have already been in business for several years and have a good amount of positive reviews.
  • Visit the shop and pay attention to the cleanliness of the place as a whole, not only the tattoo stations.
  • Ensure that ink containers are sterile and FDA approved.
  • Make sure the artist uses a sterile rinse or swab on your skin before starting, and make sure they are wearing sterile gloves the entire time.
  • If you have sensitive skin, tell the artist ahead of time. This will allow them to prepare ways to minimize irritation. They may suggest multiple sessions.

Even if you have gotten your tattoo from the cleanest, the most professional, and most popular shop in town, the responsibility is not all theirs. Once you leave the shop with your new tattoo, there are measures you can take to prevent infection as the tattoo heals:

  • Follow all aftercare instructions carefully, including cleaning and moisturizing the tattoo with appropriate products.
  • Wear clean, loose-fitting clothing around the tattoo site.
  • Wash your bedding frequently during the healing process.
  • Touch your tattoo as little as possible, and wash your hands thoroughly beforehand if touching it becomes absolutely necessary.
  • Do not let anyone else touch it.
  • If you have pets that shed, make sure their stray hairs don’t come in contact with the tattoo.

Treating Infection

All tattoos are going to produce some minor redness and inflammation. This can be reduced by lots of rest, as well as icing and elevating the location. You can also take some over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication to help ease the discomfort in the first couple of days after getting the tattoo.

how to know if your tattoo is infected and how to treat it.

If an infection does occur, your doctor will most likely begin by recommending an antibiotic of some sort. It may come in the form of a pill, ointment, or cream. If the infection is more serious, they will take a small skin sample and send it to be tested. If you are experiencing a more serious case of infection, the treatment will be determined by whatever has caused the infection in that specific case.

Other Complications

As tattoos become more and more popular, more research and studies are being done to determine potential risks and complications. As these increase, more things are being found out about tattoos. As more potential issues are discovered though, they are also doing additional research into preventing and treating these issues.

Some of the other problems that can occur as a result of a tattoo include:

  • Scarring.
  • Tattooed skin becoming increasingly sensitive to light.
  • Neurosensitivity and pain.
  • Lymph node disease.
  • Pigment possibly spreading to other areas.

Risk Level

Talking about the risks of getting a tattoo can be scary. There are a lot of things that can go wrong, and some may become extremely wary of getting a tattoo done. While it is good to be informed and proceed with caution, you shouldn’t let the risks scare you off completely.

Getting the tattoo done properly in a reputable shop minimizes the risks of even minor infections significantly. Sterile, single-use equipment almost completely eliminates the risk of viral and bacterial infections. There are also plenty of steps you can take yourself to prevent infection. Be aware of the risks and their implications should it happen to you, but don’t let yourself get stressed out. If you are going to be worried and stressed about it, it may be better to avoid getting a tattoo as high levels of stress will affect proper healing.