MRSA and Tattoos—How Big is the Risk?

Tattoo gun with needle in it
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In November of 2007, two unlicensed tattooers were brought up on criminal charges after three of their clients were infected with MRSA. This charge, while unsettling, had us questioning our next tattoo. Does that mean all tattoo artists risk transferring MRSA to their clients? The short answer: not necessarily, but it depends on the situation. The tattooers in question were unlicensed in a regulated state, so they were operating under the board. The artist is to blame for not following proper licensing procedures required by the state, and for not following the proper sanitary procedures. Also, in this particular situation, since there were three cases of MRSA in a short period of time, it was less likely that it was the fault of one client not properly caring for their tattoo and more likely the fault of the artist.

What Is MRSA?

MRSA is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a form of staph infection that can't be treated with the most common antibiotic used for such infections (methicillin). Because it doesn't respond to the usual antibiotic, it can be near-impossible to treat.

After hearing about this, we started to wonder. What are the risks are of getting an MRSA infection after getting a tattoo or piercing? Is this something we should be concerned about, and if so, what should we know?

Keep reading to learn more about MRSA, how it's transferred and what symptoms you should look out for.

Why Is It An Issue?

This dreaded "superbug" is a cause for concern in many situations and can be transferred anywhere from the gym to the medical office. 

While it's possible to pick up a bug or infection from the most common of places, it's important to be aware of the heightened risks of infection that come along with getting a tattoo or piercing. Potentially, anyone who gets a tattoo or piercing is a risk for contracting an infection – and yes, that includes MRSA

The reason MRSA is a bigger threat when getting a tattoo or piercing is that in comparison to other infections, it’s easily spread and more difficult (but not impossible) to treat. In most cases, MRSA is more severe than a typical infection, and can even occasionally be fatal. 

How Is It Transferred?

When getting a tattoo or piercing, bacteria associated with MRSA can be passed from the artist to the client, from a tool to the client, or even, unknowingly, from the client to themselves.

Since MRSA bacteria can reside on the body of a carrier (known as a colonizer) without their knowledge, and with no adverse effects on their own health, it’s possible for an artist to spread the infection to a client through skin or tool contact without them even knowing they're infected, to begin with. But, if the client themselves are already a colonizer of the bacteria, they can then be infected with the bacteria from their own bodies once the skin has been broken for the tattoo or piercing.

What Can You Do?

That can sound pretty scary, but by following Universal Precautions, your artist can reduce your risk of exposure to infectious bacteria and bloodborne pathogens almost completely.

What Are Universal Precautions?

Universal Precautions—which some tattoo artists refer to as a “sterile chain of events”—is a set of precautionary steps defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to prevent the spread of disease. This includes employing preventative measures like wearing gloves and other protective gear.

Tattoo artists are required by law to follow Universal Precautions for the safety of themselves and their clients. Any artist found not following this sterile chain of events can have their licensing and/or certification revoked, and any studio found not following U.P. guidelines can be shut down.

The basic rules of Universal Precautions include things like using gloves and other barriers on anything the artist comes in contact with, disinfecting all surfaces, and general cross-contamination prevention. When followed to the letter, your chances of being exposed to staph infection of any kind are very minimal.

While the risk is still there, even if the artist follows protocol, being aware of the proper safety measures and knowing if the artist you choose is abiding by them can offer a bit of reassurance. Yes, this can be a little disconcerting, but life is full of risks.

You could just as easily get MRSA riding the New York City subway, or at your local gym— it's a risk you take just by being. Thankfully, the risks are minimal enough that we continue to live our lives in spite of potential infections—While still accepting the fact that freak accidents are still possible. Instead, knowing that these risks exist should only make us more aware and careful; not paranoid.

It's Your Responsibility As A Client

Your first responsibility as a patron of any tattoo or piercing establishment is full disclosure of any illness or medical conditions, as well as any medications you're currently taking. Don't leave something out just because you don't think it should affect getting tattooed or pierced, and do not avoid being honest with your artist because you think they might deny you. It's not worth losing your life, or risking other peoples' for a tattoo or piercing!

As we've established, even if your artist follows Universal Precautions and does everything possible to give you a clean and safe tattoo, unfortunately, your risk of infection doesn't end there.

Your artist will provide you with aftercare instructions for your new tattoo or piercing, and it's important to follow them. Don't just blow it off, because the moment you walk out the door it becomes your responsibility, not theirs.

An open wound is still vulnerable and until your tattoo or piercing is completely healed, your risk of exposure continues. It's important that you keep a very close eye on your tattoo during the healing process so that you notice anything suspicious right away.

What To Do If You Notice An Infection?

If you detect any signs of any kind of infection, go to the doctor immediately. We are far beyond the days when you could try to treat a severe infection at home, and because MRSA is a threat with an open wound like a new tattoo or piercing, it's important that you have any significant infection examined by a doctor before it becomes life-threatening.

Potential MRSA signs to look out for include: painful red, puss-filled bumps usually resembling a pimple or spider bite, accompanied by an unexpected fever.

If you notice either of the above symptoms in conjunction with one another, make sure to see your doctor.

Remember, Do What You Should

This all being said, it's prudent to recognize that the body art industry is still denigrated by a significant portion of the general population, and any connection between an MRSA case and a tattoo or piercing is an opportunity for those people to accuse the trade as a whole, which could lead to them punishing an individual to serve as an example. That's not to say the 2007 criminal charges were unfounded, or that the artists followed protocol—but it's essential we're aware that it is a shared risk and a shared responsibility we, both as the artist and the client, take on, and if everyone does what they should, neither parties should suffer any potentially harmful effects.

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