Whether it’s your first time getting a tattoo or just one of many, it’s imperative that you take good care of your ink to ensure that it stays vibrant, healthy, and looking as good in its healed state as the day you got it. If something goes wrong or you forget to follow proper aftercare procedures, you may start noticing changes in your tattoo that signal it may be infected. Of course, it’s not just aftercare that can infect a tattoo; it’s also important to be proactive in finding an experienced and safe tattoo artist, as ink can become infected due to unhygienic conditions during the tattooing procedure.
If your tattoo is infected, you may see symptoms such as redness, tenderness, abscesses, drainage, or general pain. If you start to see any of these signs and worry that your tattoo may be infected, don’t panic and “never leave an infected tattoo the way it is,” says Dr. Corinne Erickson, a dermatologist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. Read on to learn more about the symptoms of an infected tattoo, why it's crucial not to try to treat an infected tattoo at home, and how to prevent a tattoo from infection.
Don't Ignore the Symptoms
There is a range of common signs of an infected tattoo, from something as small as feeling hot to the touch to something as serious as skin breakdown. Other signs include pustules, weeping of the ink (where clear fluid—or plasma—begins to ooze out), or worsening pain. If you think you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to speak to a physician immediately.
These symptoms can be more mild or obvious depending on the kind of infection you’ve caught. If it’s bacterial, DermaGO co-founder Dr. Marc-Andre Doré says you’ll see those typical signs like the tattoo site turning red and painful. However, he says that if the infection is a result of mycobacteria (a type of bacteria which includes the causative agents of leprosy and tuberculosis), the symptoms may be more subtle, such as slight redness with skin flaking. Furthermore, if you’ve contracted a mold infection, you may just be more inclined to itch.
It’s crucial that you don’t ignore any strange behavior on or around the location of your tattoo, as it could be anything, and it could even get worse.
“The bacterial infection that starts in the tattoo is present in the layer of your skin that contains blood vessels and lymphatics, meaning that it can spread,” says Dr. Erickson.
In other words, if you ignore an infected tattoo, that bacteria can actually spread to other parts of your body, causing infections elsewhere as well. Some patients have even developed severe infections like necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) and heart infections just from an infected tattoo being ignored, notes Dr. Erickson. To prevent spreading or worsening of any kind, make sure to speak to a medical professional right away when you notice symptoms of an infected tattoo.
See a Physician
“If you are concerned your tattoo is infected, you need to see your primary care doctor or dermatologist immediately,” says Dr. Erickson.
Dr. Doré agrees, noting that the signs of an infected tattoo—specifically redness and itchiness—can sometimes be related to something less serious, so it’s important to consult with a medical professional as soon as you see any signs of infection so they can get a sample of the bacterial culture in order to identify the correct germs and tell you how to treat it accordingly.
“Sometimes an ink allergy can arise in a tattoo and it may look like an infection,” says Dr. Doré. “[Bacterial] culture is important to look for infection, but a skin biopsy can also be necessary for any tattoo that is not healing properly to rule out an allergy.”
By seeing a medical expert immediately, you protect yourself from a number of harmful variables, such as misdiagnosing the problem, allowing the infection to get progressively worse, and stopping any cosmetic damage to your actual tattoo. In fact, catching a tattoo infection in the early stages will make it less likely that your design will scar or become discolored. Plus, a doctor will be able to know exactly what’s happening under your skin and prevent any spreading of the infection, so you can preserve the tattoo’s beauty and health.
Don’t Try to Treat It at Home
“Depending on the severity of the infection, you can treat [it] with a topical ointment, pills, or even [an] intravenous antibiotic for severe bacterial infection,” says Dr. Doré.
However, while it may be tempting to attempt to treat an infected tattoo by yourself, it’s always better to see a medical professional. Slathering at-home anti-bacterial medication won’t do much, if anything, to a real infection, and it will eventually just get worse because you’re essentially ignoring it. What Dr. Doré is referring to is prescription-based treatments, rather than just anything you can find at the store.
Prevention Is Possible
While the best way to prevent a tattoo from becoming infected is to take proper care of the healing wound, it’s also important to consider who you’re getting a tattoo from and in what environment.
“You have to manage your wound accordingly but also choose your professional wisely,” says Dr. Doré. “Make sure the establishment uses sterile procedures, has good ratings, and [has a] good track record.”
Dr. Doré suggests using the FDA’s checklist of recommendations for tattoo artists to ensure they’re following proper procedures. That means to make sure your artist isn’t using products not intended for tattooing, isn’t diluting their ink, is using proper sterilization measures, and follows accurate aseptic techniques while tattooing.
“Chat before you tatt!” recognizes Dr. Erickson. “Make it a point to go in and meet your artist and check out their environment and hygienic practices first.”
Some things to ask an artist about safety to ensure they’re following the FDA’s guidelines include how they prep the skin before tattooing; if they sterilize their instruments and, if so, how; and if they use already opened ink. If you leave the meeting feeling uncomfortable with the artist or the location or their sterilization technique, Dr. Erickson says to look elsewhere. By making sure the tattoo procedure is done safely, you can drastically minimize the risk of getting an infected tattoo.