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What to Do If Your Tattoo Gets Infected
It was at this point that I consulted my dermatologist, who prescribed both topical and oral antibiotics. And within a few days the pain and redness — and goo — were gone.
I have no doubt the infection had nothing to do with my artist’s execution and almost entirely to do with the fact that the tattoo was located in one of the sweatiest parts of my body — not to mention that I would find pieces of my dog’s hair sticking it to it no matter how clean I tried to keep the area.
But to get to the bottom of why tattoos can get infected and what to do when it happens, I asked the experts — a tattoo artist and a dermatologist — so you’re prepared if it ever happens to you.
Reputable tattoo artists do everything in their power to prevent infection.
“Tattoo artists should follow Universal Precautions, the standard for anyone who could be in contact with blood or bodily fluids, and take blood borne pathogen training,” explains Joe Lathe-Vitale, a shop owner and tattoo artist for 20 years.
Lathe-Vitale says a properly trained tattoo artist will always use sterile, single-use needles, and any materials that are reused are properly sterilized and cleaned before reusing; however, most artists now use entirely single-use disposable items.
Furthermore, your artist is responsible for making sure the skin is properly prepped before starting.
“You can develop an infection if the skin isn’t adequately cleaned before getting a tattoo,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at the Mount Sinai Hospital Department of Dermatology.
“An artist who’s properly trained and using good safety measures will greatly minimize any chance of infection,” says Lathe-Vitale. “In my opinion, improper healing techniques are the most common cause.”
You must be diligent during the healing process.
Even if your artist does everything correctly, it’s what happens after you leave the shop that’s the key to healthy healing.
“A tattoo that is properly done by a reputable artist is pretty resilient. It will heal if just left alone and kept clean,” Lathe-Vitale says. “It’s outside bacteria that can cause problems.”
Although every artist has preferences for after-care, most emphasize how important it is to keep the tattooed skin moisturized and clean — and that means avoiding some very normal behaviors that would otherwise be harmless.
“In my opinion, the most important thing is for a client to never touch the tattoo without first washing their hands,” Lathe-Vitale says, and that means before applying any moisturizer or ointment. Additionally, “try to avoid dog or cat scratches, don’t let your pet lick your new tattoo, don’t soak it in a tub, and don’t use body scrub.”
Keep an eye out for the signs of infection.
If you’ve ever gotten a tattoo, you know it’s par for the course to have pain and swelling after a session. And Dr. Zeichner totally agrees that it’s normal. Anything beyond that may be cause for concern, however.
“If you are developing significant warmth, redness, or tenderness, you may have developed an infection,” he says. “If you feel unwell or have a fever or any pus in the area of the tattoo, these can be other signs of an infection.”
Don’t ignore the symptoms or expect them to go away on their own.
Even if your previous tattoos have healed perfectly, it’s imperative to consult a doctor if you have the signs of an infection.
“Depending on the severity of the infection, your dermatologist may prescribe a prescription topical antibiotic,” Dr. Zeichner explains. “In some severe cases, you may receive an oral antibiotic instead.”
He emphasizes that you cannot count on an infection to clear up without medication. “If not treated, infections typically do not resolve on their own. They can grow in size and become quite large and tender. As with any skin infection, in severe cases bacteria can enter your bloodstream and actually become life-threatening.”
Your infection probably won’t ruin your tattoo, but you may need a touch-up.
“If an infections occurs, it’s not the end of the world,” says Lathe-Vitale. “Once it’s cleared up, the tattoo can always be touched up if necessary.”
The important thing is to wait until the skin has fully recovered.
“An infection after a tattoo may result in improper healing of the skin. This may mean that tattoo pigment is not properly retained in the skin, “Dr. Zeichner says. “It’s okay to get a touch up; however, I recommend waiting at least one to two months after the infection has resolved to make sure that the skin is fully healed,” Dr. Zeichner advises.
At that point, Lathe-Vitale recommends letting your artist visually inspect the tattoo to determine if it’s ready.
And that’s exactly what I did. After I fully healed from my ordeal, I found that some areas of the tattoo that were affected by the infection lost some of the ink, leaving some blank spaces. I’m happy to report that my artist did an awesome job touching up those spots, and the healing process went perfectly this time around.