Tattoo Infections: Identification and Treatment

  • Written By Dan Hunter on July 15, 2018
    Last Updated: December 31, 2020

A tattoo infection isn’t always the first thing that most people think about after they’ve just gotten the tattoo of their dreams. However, getting an infected tattoo in the days or weeks after leaving the studio is a very real possibility, and something you should definitely be wary about.

Whether you’ve just gotten a new tattoo, or are thinking about getting one, you should be aware of the problems that can arise if you don’t follow the aftercare instructions properly or if your tattoo artist fails to follow correct hygiene procedures.

What Is A Tattoo Infection?

Most of the time, people are extremely happy and excited after getting a brand-new tattoo and expect their ink to heal beautifully over the next few weeks. After all, tattoos are generally a safe cosmetic procedure.

Unfortunately, however, the tattoo healing process doesn’t always go to plan, and of all the side effects your new tattoo may encounter during these early and important days, an infected tattoo is amongst the worst and most feared.

Straight after getting a new tattoo, the area is essentially just a large and open wound that is very vulnerable to germs and bacteria until the tattooed skin is able to protect itself once again.

However, when these nasty germs gain entry to the wound, your immune system may not be able to stop them from infecting the area and causing damage to the surrounding tissue.


Lots of times, an infection remains only very minor and localized to the area, and these small skin infections can actually heal by themselves over the course of several days or, at most, a couple of weeks.

If left untreated, however, an infected tattoo can actually lead to blood poisoningshock, and even eventually organ failure and death, although fortunately this is extremely rare.

How To Identify An Infected Tattoo

Continuous/Extreme Pain

Generally, all new tattoos will cause some amount of pain in the first few days, and the bigger the tattoo, the more painful the area usually is, and the longer the pain normally takes to completely resolve.

However, if your tattoo starts to cause excruciating, searing pain, or if the tattoo is still very painful to touch after 7-10 days (or if the pain is getting worse instead of getting better), then this could be the sign of a possible infection.


A skin rash can present in many different shapes, sizes, textures and colors. While many rashes will just be red and smooth, some may be bumpy and pimply.

While a rash on a tattoo commonly signals minor irritation to the skin, it can also be a sign of infection – especially if it continues to get worse, or grows larger and outwards from the tattooed skin. If a rash appears and disappears quickly, it could be a sign of a possible allergic reaction.

Extreme Redness

Nearly all tattoos will be red and inflamed for a few days afterward (or longer if the tattoo is particularly large). However, if a tattoo continues to get even redder over the course of 5-7 days instead of gradually fading, this could mean an infection has set in.

Hot To The Touch

Most tattoos will be warm to the touch for a few days or feel like they’re burning due to the body’s natural healing mechanism to enhance blood flow to heal the tattoo (increased blood flow to the area will naturally increase the temperature of the site).

But, if your ink becomes very hot to the touch, or is still warm/hot to the touch after a week, then this can be the sign of a possible infection.

Extreme Itching

While annoying itching is common with a new tattoo, especially if the area becomes very dry. Getting an itch that never goes away or becomes so extreme that you cannot handle it can be a sign of infection or an allergic reaction. More so if the itching doesn’t go away after tempting to soothe the area.

A skin infection is also much more likely if the itching is accompanied by one or more of the other symptoms in this list.


Swelling is quite common with new tattoos, especially if the tattoo is situated below the waist (legs/ankles/feet), or on a very tender and thin piece of skin like the inner bicep.

If the swelling is very bad, and continues to spread away from the site of the tattoo and fails to reduce over the course of 7-10 days, then this could be caused by an infection.

Extreme/Unusual Scabbing

Scabbing is entirely normal during the tattoo healing process, and the odd thick, unsightly scab is not uncommon, especially if the tattoo artist was quite rough with the needle.

Infected Scabbing

However, if the whole tattoo becomes full of crusty, thick, itchy scabs that also begin to ooze and bleed, then this could be the sign of an infection. Infected tattoos generally look very uneven due to thick crusts and dried blood/plasma.


Blisters are not a common side-effect of getting a tattoo, and therefore any blistering on the skin around the tattooed area should be seen as suspicious and potentially the result of an infection. All blisters on tattoos should be investigated.

Pimples or Boils that Discharge Pus

Pimples can be common on a new tattoo and are generally not a problem. However, if you develop pimples that begin to ooze and smell bad or develop into large painful boils, then an infection is likely. Pus can be either clear and runny or thick and gloopy, depending on the type of infection.

A tattoo that has contracted a staph infection – big, white and bumpy boils are present all over the area

You should be aware that for the first couple of days, your new tattoo will likely leak small amounts of blood, ink and plasma; so don’t get worried and mistake this for an infection. If this happens to you in the first couple of days, it’s likely to be completely normal.

Foul Odor

Foul odor being omitted from a tattoo is normally accompanied by oozing and a pus-containing discharge, and is generally a sign that there’s an infection taking place. Get the area of skin looked at by a tattoo artist or doctor.

Continuous Bleeding

Bleeding normally slows down once the tattoo has been completed, and normally stops fully after the first 2-3 nights afterward, due to the clotting and scabbing that forms around the area.

An infected tattoo can begin to bleed again after this timeframe; especially if the area has heavily scabbed over and begins to crack and ooze.

Red Streaking

If long lines of redness appear that look as if they’re streaking away from your tattoo then you should seek medical attention immediately, as this is a symptom of septicemia – also known as blood poisoning, which is not the same as tattoo ink poisoning.

Septicemia can be life-threatening if not treated promptly, and therefore red streaking should be taken very seriously if noticed.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

​There are small lumpy nodules located all around your body called lymph nodes. These help to filter out impurities from your blood.

If there is an infection present, the lymph nodes that are situated closest to the infection generally begin to swell, and they’re commonly found in the groin area, armpits, and neck.

If you have a new tattoo that’s displaying one or more symptoms in this list, and you also have a swollen lymph node nearby, then an infection may be present and you should notify your doctor.

High Temperature / Fever / Extreme Tiredness

Generally, all infections have the ability to raise the core body temperature and cause lethargy/extreme tiredness.

If you have a high temperature/fever/extreme tiredness in addition to one or more symptoms in this list then you may have an infected tattoo and should visit a doctor.

If your symptoms also include a fast heart rate, increased breathing, and/or general confusion then seek medical attention immediately, as these could be signs of a serious condition, such as sepsis


Some of these symptoms can also be mistaken for normal tattoo healing as they can be very similar, and vice-versa.

The best way to differentiate is to rate the severity of the symptom. Symptoms of infection tend to be much worse than common side-effects of healing. While symptoms caused by general healing will slowly go away, symptoms of infection will normally remain the same or continue to get worse.

How To Treat An Infected Tattoo

The first thing to note is that all suspected skin infections should be treated seriously. As soon as you suspect your tattoo is infected, you should get in touch with your tattoo artist or a doctor as soon as possible so they can arrange to look at the tattoo and advise further. Doctors will also be able to differentiate infection from other issues, such as an allergic reaction.

Antibiotics and steroidal administration are common treatments, and less common methods include infection drainage, and in extreme circumstances, emergency admission to the hospital.

Remember; even if the infection is only minimal and localized to a small area of your tattoo, it may still seriously affect the long-term appearance of your ink if not treated quickly.

If left for too long, an infection can eventually spread to wider areas around the tattoo and begin to cause further damage.

Below are some steps that can be taken to help treat and relieve symptoms that are being caused by an infection (along with any medication/advice prescribed by a doctor).

Apply Ice

If the wound is itchy or swollen, applying ice to the area can help to soothe and minimize the symptoms.

Make sure not to apply ice directly to the skin, though. Always make sure there’s a damp cloth placed between the ice and your tattoo to prevent further damage to the area.

Air The Wound

Exposing the wound to fresh air regularly (especially if it’s being regularly wrapped in a bandage) allows the skin to take in sufficient oxygen, which in turn should help to speed up the healing process.

Clean The Wound

You should ensure you keep the infected area as clean as possible to prevent the infection from spreading further.

Clean the wound at least 3 times a day and make sure to pat the area completely dry with a clean paper towel. Dry skin is much less inviting to germs and bacteria compared to wet or damp skin.

The tattoo cleaning guidelines shown here are sufficient for both infected tattoos and also completely healthy ones.

Apply Bandaging

Applying a bandage to the area can help to protect the tattoo as it heals from an infection, and help stop the raw wound from rubbing against anything.

However, some tattoo artists and doctors may recommend against applying a bandage to the area depending on the specific type of infection and the area of skin. Always seek your doctor or tattoo artist’s opinion on bandaging before proceeding to attempt it yourself.

Keep Away From Direct Sunlight

New ink is very sensitive to UV rays at the best of times, and an infected tattoo will likely be doubly-sensitive and much more prone to burning compared to a regularly healing tattoo. Therefore, you should do your best to keep the tattoo out of direct sunlight until it’s completely healed and all infections have been successfully treated.

Causes and Prevention

Unsanitary Tattooing Environment/Equipment

This is by far the biggest cause of tattoo infections.

When getting a tattoo, it is imperative that the shop/environment where the tattooing process is taking place is entirely clean and decontaminated of any nasty bacteria.

Not only this, but all tattooing equipment such as needles and ink pots must be completely sterile, and whatever equipment/apparatus that isn’t brand new and straight out of a packet should be wrapped in film or another form of coating before every procedure. This ensures all surfaces remain sanitary and the risk of bacteria spreading is neutralized.

It is imperative that you find a good tattoo artist to do the work for you, and never get a scratcher tattoo.

Infected ink

Ineffective Cleaning

Equally as bad as getting tattooed in a dirty environment is not looking after the tattoo properly once you’ve left the studio.

You must ensure that you keep your tattoo as clean as possible by washing the area at least twice a day (morning and night), and preferably once more during the day too if you spend the day in an unclean environment.

Cleaning your tattoo with gentle antibacterial soap and lukewarm water will not only help to kill 99.9% of all bacteria currently residing around the area but will also help to keep bacteria and germs away from the wound until the next wash.

Not cleaning your tattoo efficiently can lead to a buildup of bacteria and increase the risk of infection.

How to clean a new tattoo:

Poor Aftercare Instructions

Although most tattoo artists give their customers a printed sheet containing detailed instructions about how to care for their new tattoo, some tattoo artists may not do this or may forget.

If somebody who has just been tattooed is new to the art form and is completely unaware of the amount of care that is required during the healing process, this can lead to neglect of the tattooed area, which can then lead to the possibility of an infection occurring.

Tattoo Re-Wrapping

Once your tattoo has been completed, your tattoo artist will wash the area with a soap solution before proceeding to wrap it in order to form a protective barrier against bacteria until you’re able to get home and clean the area again yourself.

Bloody plastic wrap
Don’t get worried if you see a site like this – slight bleeding is completely normal

Once your tattoo has been completed, your tattoo artist will wash the area with a soap solution before proceeding to wrap it in order to form a protective barrier against bacteria until you’re able to get home and clean the area again yourself.

Once the initial wrap has been removed, attempting to re-wrap the tattoo yourself at any point afterward is generally discouraged by most tattoo artists.

This is because when the tattoo was first wrapped in the studio, it was done in an extremely clean environment by a professional who will have ensured the area of tattooed skin was completely clean and free from bacteria before applying the wrap.

However, when trying to attempt to re-wrap the tattoo yourself, you will be very unlikely to keep the area as clean and sterile as it needs to be.

If you proceed to wrap the area while there are pockets of bacteria already around the wound, then the warm, occlusive, humid environment created between the wrap and your skin will be the perfect environment for the bacteria to multiply.

This situation then becomes a high risk, and the chances of contracting an infection increase dramatically.

Picking/Pulling Scabs Off

When your tattoo begins to heal, it will form a layer of scabbing over the area. This scabbing is produced to help shield the wounded skin beneath from germs and bacteria.

Although it may seem tempting to pick off a big, thick, ugly scab, this can be very detrimental to the tattoo healing process, especially if you go to scratch the scabs with dirty fingernails – this is an infection waiting to happen.

heavy scabbing
This tattoo is scabbing quite heavily, so will probably peel away in larger chunks

Not only will pulling the scabs off further delay the amount of time in which your tattoo will take to heal, but it also increases the risk of ink being pulled out of the area – potentially creating areas of faded or patchy ink.

Most importantly, though, pulling a scab off of your new tattoo re-opens the wound and introduces germs and bacteria into the area, increasing the risk of your tattoo getting infected.

Bathing In Dirty Water

You should never let your tattoo sit in a body of water while it’s still healing.

Although some bodies of water may look clean, they are still likely to harbor billions of bacteria. Always take short showers with a new tattoo, and never bathe.

Letting Others Touch The Area

Letting other people touch your new tattoo is a terrible idea. You have no clue where their hands have been since they last washed them.

Only ever allow your tattoo to be touched by yourself, and ensure your own hands have been thoroughly cleaned immediately before touching the area to make sure there is absolutely no bacteria present.

Using Too Much Lotion

Although tattoo moisturizing lotion can definitely help to speed up the healing process, applying too much of it at once can actually cause problems.

When you slop on a thick layer of lotion or ointment onto the top of your tattoo, you’re not only suffocating your tattoo of oxygen, which it requires to heal efficiently, but you’re also creating a warm and humid environment between the layer of lotion and your tattooed skin, which is the perfect place for infection-causing bacteria to breed.

This is FAR too much lotion and some should be blotted off with a paper towel

Always ensure your tattoo is completely clean and dry before applying lotion, and only add a very thin layer to your skin – just enough to make the area slightly shiny.

The best tattoo lotion I’ve ever personally used is a vegan aftercare product called After Inked Tattoo Aftercare Lotion. This stuff works amazingly well during the healing process; not only by keeping your tattoo really well hydrated but also by soothing any annoying itching and irritation. When using it from the very start of the healing process, this lotion will help to decrease tattoo healing times and work towards eliminating any lingering dryness and scabbing.​ Click here to buy from Amazon.

Life Choices

A fit and healthy body is very effective at neutralizing any threats presented to it by healing wounds efficiently and killing any bacteria/germs quickly before they can cause an area to become infected.

However, various life choices can greatly affect the immune system and decrease its effectiveness when it comes to fighting off an infection. Choosing a lack of sleep and lots of alcohol over a healthier lifestyle is a sure way to slow down your body’s healing capabilities. Smoking significantly slows down healing times and increases the risk of infection.

Medical Conditions

Various medical conditions and afflictions can also greatly affect the capabilities of your immune system. It’s always extremely important to ensure you consult a medical professional before getting a tattoo to make sure the process will not increase the risk of infection, or otherwise seriously impact your health. Even over the counter medications like aspirin and ibuprofen can affect the way your tattoo heals.

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