How Do You Know When a Tattoo Is Infected?

How Do You Know When a Tattoo Is Infected
Credit: David Clifton

For the most part, tattoos are fun—think scrolling through Instagram and Pinterest picking designs, geeking with your friends; maybe even drawing your own, until the worst case scenario happens: your brand-new, supposed-to-be-pretty ink got infected. Plus, how to know when a tattoo is infected is no easy task.

According to Dr. Rebecca Baxt of BAXT CosMedical, signs of infection may appear typically within a few days to a week. This depends on the type of infection, the most common according to Dr. Baxt is bacterial, often staphylococcus or streptococcus, both infections caused by bacteria commonly found on the skin.

This is to say, it’s vital to keep a close eye on your new ink because there’s really no solid answer to the good ol’ question, ‘how do you know when a tattoo is infected?’. Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, a dermatologist based in Manhattan, also shared that some allergies may take a few weeks to appear. There’s really no Skin sensitivity plays a role here: If you tend to have a more sensitive skin or if you already have underlying allergies, you may have higher chances of getting allergic reaction to ink.

Causes of tattoo infections

Ink color may cause a person to develop allergy. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, red ink is among the most common culprit. This is because of the pigments specifically found in red ink. Though of course, any color can cause allergic reaction. Best thing to do is to follow your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions and be extra careful, especially on the first few weeks. We asked Lila Castellanos, licensed esthetician and microblading pro, how does a tattoo get infected and she shared some of the most common causes, which include the following:

  • Unsanitary tattooing environment/equipment
  • Poor aftercare instructions from technician
  • Picking/pulling scabs off
  • Scratching the tattoo
  • Letting others touch the tattoo
  • Using lotions your artist did not advise

When you get a tattoo, the process is pretty known—a needle penetrating your skin repeatedly. This multiple penetrations of the skin barrier, according to Dr. Baxt, also increases the chances of staph or strep to enter and cause, yes, you guessed it, an infection. And while there’s no solid number that answers how often do tattoos get infected, internal medicine physician Dr. Monya De MD MPH noted that poor aftercare may also result to tat problems.

So, how do you know when a tattoo is infected?

It’s a complex question, but how do you know when a tattoo is infected? A red rash is among the most common symptoms. And in case you’re not sure, yes, you need to see a medical expert once you notice this type of symptom. Sometimes, a rash will just go away on its own. Other times, it is caused by something more serious. Not that you need to panic, but it’s better to make sure you know what’s really causing the rash.

Another common symptom would be swelling. Typically, new tattoos, especially big ones, do swell and may be warm to touch. Just like a red rash, this is normal for the first one to three days but if it goes beyond that and the rash and swelling seem to be worsening, it’s time to give your artist a call. Or better yet, get yourself medically checked to know what’s causing the swelling. Discharge of yellowish, pus-like fluid may also be a sign of infection, says Bhanusali.

Treating your ink infections

Knowing what to do if tattoo is infected is vital, though treatment varies a lot depending on the cause and severity. For Dr. Baxt, common infections can be treated with oral and/or topical antibiotics and for severe infections, patients would most likely need intravenous antibiotics, though she noted that if left untreated, infections “can be deadly.” Dr. Bhanusali also mentioned the need to do wound cultures, to be certain on the main cause of the infection and the best course of treatment. There also some rare high-risk infections wherein the bacteria goes systemic—according to him, in cases like this and when the patient experiences vomiting, nausea, or fever, “[the patient] may need to go to the ER and get IV antibiotics or fluids.”

And just when we thought the existence of the internet would help avid tattoo lovers reduce the chance of getting ink problems, this isn’t really the case. If only more people would ask how do you know when a tattoo is infected and do their research, before actually getting inked. As a result, many are still infections despite having a good tool to do their own initial research. “Patients tend to not search the internet until they already have symptoms,” says De. She further notes the importance of checking your desired tattoo parlor, saying to be sure it has both a positive health inspection record and good hygiene practices.

Dr. Bhanusali stresses out the importance of getting treatment ASAP once you see signs of infection. “Sometimes patients aren’t aware how they should care for the tattoos after the procedure. Sometimes it just happens even if you do everything right. While not super common, they do happen and the key is getting them treated ASAP.”

How to ensure that your new tattoo doesn’t get infected

The most obvious answer to this is to take all precautionary actions you can take. Make it a point that you only get inked by a reputable artist who puts hygiene on top of his priority list. Be sure your artist does everything in the most sterile way, meaning no reusing of needles. “Blood-borne infections like HIV are still transmitted this way,” warns De of reusing needles.

Furthermore, there are things you need to avoid while your ink is still new. It’s advisable to refrain from too much sun exposure, especially if your ink placement is on uncovered parts of your body like your arms. Castellanos also implores that you avoid pools, hot showers and hot tubs for the first 2 weeks after you get inked.

At the end of the day, you have to keep in mind that getting a permanent tattoo is for life. You would want to make sure it stays pretty. But even if you had it done by a great artist, if you didn’t take good care of it afterwards, your new ink may be infected and it will look the exact opposite of pretty. It is one thing to keep wondering on what happens if your tattoo gets infected, it’s another to actually take action do your homework before letting that needle penetrate your skin.

Related: The Best Soaps to Wash New Tattoos With

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