You don’t have to roll around in the mud like a pig to get a skin infection. In reality, complications are common when you or your artist, forget to use your noggins.
Most people think that avoiding a tattoo infection is as simple as avoiding trashy tattoo parlors, or by declining requests from ink-aspiring artists that go by the name of “friends.”
The truth is, it’s just not that simple!
While skin infections reported are rather small, there are still a handful of ways to get an infected tattoo unexpectedly. Most of which will probably surprise you, and make you go, “why didn’t I even think of that?”
Today, I’d like to share with you all the ways to avoid a nasty infection, alongside all the symptoms to watch out for. From serious to minor signs, I’m going to cover them all below. Additionally, I’m going to give you an insider look at what treatment is like and cover the right time to seek help from a medical professional.
If you’re worried your new ink is already infected, this guide is for you. If you want to avoid infections altogether, either now or in the future, this guide is for you!
With that said, let’s dive into the world of unfortunate mistakes and their unintended consequences.
What causes infected tattoos and how to prevent it from happening to you:
By far, the number one cause of infected tattoos today stems from one thing: Improper aftercare.
I highly suggest and urge you to read the definitive guide to tattoo aftercare. I give it away for free because I got so sick and tired of hearing about people doing the wrong things with their new ink! It is by far, the most comprehensive guide on the planet! Most importantly, one you can actually trust because I follow it step by step myself and continually update it with the times.
The general causes:
Old school habits of giving out terrible advice.
1. Let’s face it, not every single tattoo artist out there is going to be up to date with the latest and greatest in ink aftercare. They just aren’t. A fair number are still stuck in their old school ways and have been giving out the same (terrible) advice for years and years. Most are simply tattoo artists, not medical professionals.
Unfortunately, the medical community doesn’t operate in the same way as they do. Health experts, doctors, and dermatologists are always discovering new treatments and putting closes to countless old wives tales of the past.
For instance, years ago everyone once believed that the skin needed to “breathe” after it was wounded. By that I mean you’d take the bandage off and expose an open flesh wound to the air. After studying the subject intensively, everyone in the medical realized the idea of letting a wound breathe was absolute madness! It’s far better to keep it wrapped up for a whole host of reasons. Many of which I cover extensively in the aftercare guides I’ve written.
In reality, you’ll still find artists out there who tell clients to let their new tattoo breathe. In fact, some stress it like doing so is super important to the healing process. It’s the kind of nonsense that makes you go what the heck!
Forgetting to give out aftercare advice in the first place.
2. While bad advice is a surefire way to end up with a tattoo infection, your chances increase when you come across an artist who either forgets to explain the process to you, or simply tells you to not even worry about it.
Personally, I’ve gotten tattoos where the artist acted as if aftercare was no big deal at all. Had I not brought up the question of what to do afterward, I would have left assuming the large flesh wound on my body would just magically heal up on its own, with no issues! While the body is capable of repairing itself, there are countless ways to hinder that process and really shoot yourself in the foot.
The specific and actual causes:
1. Not using bandages or plastic wrap to create an occlusive seal which protects your flesh wound.
2. Removing the bandage too early. You must wait at least 4 to 5 hours before peeling it off. It’s the bare and absolute minimum. Ideally, you want to aim for around 8 hours. Or, removing the bandage too late. After 24 hours problems can start to occur. (This won’t directly cause an infection but bad habits can play a role.)
4. Not washing after removing the bandage, or failing to loosen up and remove dried lymph and coagulated blood from the surface. You can really set yourself up for an infection if you don’t wash your hands first or use a dirty sponge or washcloth. Never use a sponge or washcloth, only your hands. Your hands should be deep cleaned, with the knuckles, palms, fingernails, fingertips scrubbed and spotless. You must always, use soap!
5. Taking long showers and baths will make the healing process more difficult. However, things like swimming in pools, hot tubs, ponds and lakes are surefire ways to actually getting an infection.
6. Drying with a dirty hand towel or bath towel. Always ensure you are using fresh, just out of the washer and dryer towel or a brand new roll of paper towels to pat dry. Remember, an old towel that’s lying around could have been walked over by your dog, brushed up against the toilet, or used after someone failed to wash their hands thoroughly.
7. Allergic reactions can be confused with infections when it comes to using ointment. In some cases, using Neosporin for example, can be toxic when the body rejects it. It makes for a fatal situation that isn’t just red bumps popping up, it’s you popping into the hospital door for help.
8. Failing to keep your new tattoo clean. It’s critical that you wash, every couple of hours for the first three days. With soap, not just water! If you’re not sure which soap to use, try Tattoo Goo Deep Cleansing Soap. It’s specially designed for cleaning tattoos and is antibacterial, antimicrobial and pH-balanced.
9. Using expired or contaminated lotion. Check the expiration date on your bottles before applying any type of product to your skin. Believe it or not, but lotion isn’t just lotion in the sense. The ingredients in the formula can spoil and bacteria/mold can begin to form. Manufacturers can make accidental mistakes at their factories too.
10. For foot tattoos, infection can occur when wearing no socks or protective wrap with old, musty shoes. Consider all the times you tied your laces without washing your hands, or how often they’ve slid across dog poop in the grass.
11. Wearing dirty or soiled clothing. Remember, it’s going to rub up against your flesh wound. If you’re not protected, it’s going to invite bacteria in.
12. Exercising with a new tattoo a gym and failing to realize that an arm tattoo for instance, may rub up against a machine that thousands of other people have sweated all over and rubbed against. Some of which may have not taken a bath in a long time. If you don’t want to wear a long-sleeved t-shirt at the gym, try wearing a tattoo protection sleeve like this one from Tough Outdoors.
13. A dirty home. More specifically, dirty pillows and bed sheets. So many people forget to wash these after coming home with new ink! If you live with dogs you know how dirty bedding can get. Remember to always use the steam option on your washer/dryer if you have it, as it will cut back on any stubborn leftover bacteria.
14. Showing off your new tattoo to friends and actually letting them touch it! You don’t know where their hands have been at or what they have touched! In some cases people will peel back the wrap without realizing they just held their phone a moment earlier. Remember, your phone is swamping with bacteria, don’t do that!
15. Being in places or around people that are either ill or dirty. That could mean washing the dishes at a sink, going into a unsanitary public place, or perhaps scrubbing toilets.
16. Picking at scabs or scratching excessively.
For the most part, tattoo artists today are clean, abide by various health and safety regulations and don’t wish for anyone to get an infection. They want to make your experience as smooth as possible. While it’s possible for them to make mistakes from time to time, unless you’re in a really disgusting/trashy tattoo parlor, most of the time infections are caused by you, not your artist!
1. Failing to keep their workspace clean. If their shop has dirty floors, countertops with disgusting clutter, and a soiled chair run out the door!
2. Not performing any spore testing, or failing to do it at least once a month. Failing to use an Autoclave or Statim to sterilize their tools. Don’t be afraid to request the most recent test!
3. Failing to unseal a needle in front of you. Never let an artist use a needle that isn’t sealed or packaged.
4. Failing to pour pigments from single-use plastic vessels, or using pigment stored and removed from an unsanitary area. In rare cases, ink can be sealed, yet still contaminated from manufacturing errors unrelated to your artist.
It happens: A study in Europe examined 58 sealed bottles and found 10% were contaminated with bacteria known as a “mycobacterium chelonae,” alongside 17% of previously opened bottles. Granted, this does not happen every day, nor often enough to panic over.
5. Not thoroughly washing their hands/using gloves. Or simply eating, drinking, handling their phone, or touching pens and pencils, etc. while inking.
6. Using a dirty towel or dirty paper towels to remove oozing plasma or blood while inking.
Warning Signs of An Infected Tattoo And Symptoms
1. Overly Itchy: During the healing process you’re going to itch, especially when you start the peeling phase. Relax, it’s normal. If lotion and proper moisturizing aren’t working for you, then hydrocortisone cream (short term) may do the trick for the worst case scenario. However, if that doesn’t work, or the itchiness continues to persist at an uncomfortable level consult a health care professional.
2. Oozing: A bit of clear plasma and a little bit of red blood will happen to ooze out for a rather short period. It’s normal. However, when you see yellow, brown or green tinted slime or pus discharging from your flesh wound, you’ll need to stop and see a doctor immediately. While you might think it’s the color of the ink pigment leaking out, it’s not. Even in tiny amounts, you should take any discolored oozing seriously.
Oozing may add another symptom to take note of: Foul odor.
3. Tenderness and Pain: Your new ink will be a tad sore, it’s a flesh wound after all. That’s quite normal. If you start to feel deep pain or intense sunburn like surface pain that stings beyond your comfort level, go to the doctor. Even if you do not notice any oozing or other symptoms, pain can often be a good indication of an infected tattoo.
4. Red streaks: A minor redness for a short period is normal. However, red streaks, on the other hand, can indicate an infection that’s spreading around. It’s a classic, tell-tale sign to take note of. If you don’t notice streaks, you may see instead, a rash that seems to spread larger and larger. The rash can appear red and inflamed. However, an infection can be present even without immediate scabbing on the surface.
5. Swelling, Blistering, and Boils: Small bulges can indicate significant future problems. When a tattoo gets infected, the skin can balloon up like a pimple and fill with puss that will need to be drained by a medical professional. When the infection is dreadful, it can flow out like a rushing river from all the buildup.
7. Warmth: More than often it’s accompanied by other symptoms which are more noticeable like the red streaks for example.
8. Systemic Infection: It means the entire body is affected by things like weakness, fever, tiredness, or muscle aches, and so on. Take sepsis for example, which happens when chemicals are pumped into the bloodstream to ward off an infection. It triggers full body inflammation and starts a chain of reaction, which can lead to things like organ failure or worse. Understand that just because your flesh wound is in one single spot, doesn’t mean that your entire body is somehow going to be magically unaffected!
Other reactions: Let’s face it, allergies happen. Some of which have delayed reactions or immediate reactions. Things like cement dermatitis, eczematous eruptions, parakeratosis, and keloids are a reality for some people. Not to mention, things like hematoma, where a blood vessel getting punctured can leave things like scary looking bruises. To the untrained eye, simply eye-balling new body art issues is not going to paint a full picture. It won’t determine if something’s truly an allergic reaction or bacterial infection; it will just give you clues. Ultimately, a doctor can put together a puzzle from those clues, and give you the correct answer as to what’s really going on.
Before wrapping up this section, I’d like you to take a look at the Tattoo Peeling 101 guide. I’ve heard from countless people freaking out the moment their skin starts to peel or itch. It’s perhaps one of the most misdiagnosed “infections” people claim to have.
I don’t blame anyone for overreacting though. Regardless if it’s your first or fiftieth tattoo, it’s always best to play it safe. Just be informed about the peeling process for peace of mind!
What does an infected tattoo look like?
Tattoo infection treatment
When it comes to infected tattoos, treatment isn’t something you can DIY. Period! You must go to a hospital or doctor to restore your skin back to a clean bill of health. I don’t care if you think it’s too expensive, too time-consuming, or if you’re afraid of looking like an idiot who overacted. Trust me; you won’t!
Now, there are a few rules you must know about treatment. The comments below are just to set the expectation of what typically happens. Please don’t take bits and pieces of my advice and try to become your own health care wizard.
1. Go to the doctor as early as humanly possible. Don’t leave it to chance. Don’t assume your body will take care of it on its own. While the body can repair itself in many impressive ways with the immune system, it’s not always capable of fighting off a severe infection. Ultimately, a doctor will make that call. Most doctors will play it safe, not stupid!
If that wasn’t convincing enough for you, then perhaps you should know that a new, infected tattoo can often be salvaged if you seek treatment early on. Remember, ink is forever. Do you really want to remember the time when you were too lazy to get off your bum and be responsible for your own body?
2. Blood test. You’ll need one, and you’ll get one.
3. Antibiotics. You may end up taking Amoxicillin (The medicine you take for things like strep throat. Personally, I have fond memories of the bubble gum flavored pink liquid as a child.) for a week or longer. I’ve heard of others taking it twice daily for ten days in a row.
4. Draining. Depending on the severity, puss may be drained from the infected wound area. I’ll save you the details, as for most, it’s a rather disgusting process to witness.
5. Ultimately, your doctor will determine the next steps. They may opt for the use of different steroid creams with antibacterial or antifungal properties, and so on. In more serious cases like sepsis shock, which is life-threatening, you can expect to be hooked up to an IV and undergo more carefully monitored medical treatments.
In reality, skin infections can range from things like cellulitis to impetigo, herpes simplex, viral warts, atypical mycobacterial infection, etc. Of course, there are more significant blood-borne diseases too including leprosy, viral hepatitis, HIV, syphilis, etc.
The truth is, tattoo infections are no joke!
By now you should know what to look for and what to do when you spot the symptoms. I’ve given you a nice insider look at treatment as well. In doing so, I hope you realize that when treated early, the process isn’t all that scary. When ignored, expect the worst!
Infections aren’t something that you just shrug off and hope for the best. Cleaning your wound more often and applying more ointment just isn’t going to cut it when you go beyond the point of no return.
A strict responsibility to following proper aftercare step by step can eliminate your chances greatly and significantly. Remember, infection are not all that common, but there are a lot of doofuses out there who ignore things like the importance of aftercare. They make stupid but simple, cross-contamination mistakes. Or they think that going to a trashy tattoo parlor because it’s “cheap” or getting inked by a shady friend because it’s “free” is entirely acceptable. (It’s not.)
Other doofuses take the advice of their tattoo artist’s opinion on aftercare without doing any research on their own. A fair amount simply aren’t up to speed and still believe in old wives tales. Do your aftercare homework, regardless of how your good your new ink looks, or how much you trust your artist, etc. You’ll be glad you did!
Sometimes infections happen by pure accident. The truth is, nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes from time to time without even realizing what we’ve done.
If you can avoid those mistakes above, then I have full confidence that you and your new ink, will be A-OK and infection-free!