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Tattoo Infections - How To Spot & Treat An Infected Tattoo

Tattoo infections aren't always the first thing that most people think about after they've just gotten their dream tattoo after months of waiting for their appointment. However, getting an infected tattoo after leaving the studio is a very real possibility, and something you should definitely be wary about.

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Whether you've just gotten a new tattoo, or are thinking about getting one, you should definitely be aware of the problems that can arise should your tattoo aftercare not go to plan, or if your artist fails to follow the correct hygiene procedures.

Although uncommon, tattoo infections do occur, and this section will aim to educate you on the dangers of infections, how to spot them, and what to do in order to successfully treat them.

What Is A Tattoo Infection?

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

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

Infected Tattoo

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 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 and death to the surrounding tissue.

There are many hundreds of types of skin infections, and each of them has different characteristics and severity.

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

Picture of infected tattoo

Sometimes, however, tattoo infections can become much more serious and affect not only the area of tattooed skin, but also tissue much further away from the initial infected site.

If left untreated, some infections can actually lead to blood poisoning, shock, and even eventually organ failure and death.

Although the above scenarios are generally extremely rare, and can be treated successfully if acted upon quickly enough, it's still worth remembering that a tattoo infection is nothing to take lightly, no matter how minor you believe the infection may be.

What Causes Tattoo Infections & How To Prevent Them?

Although all cases of tattoo infection stem from bacteria getting into the wound, there are multiple ways in which these bacteria are able to actually get into the wound in the first place.

Infected Tattoo

Below is a list of common causes/reasons why a tattoo might become infected during healing:

Unsanitary Tattooing Environment/Equipment

This is by far the biggest cause of tattoos getting infected.

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.

If you get a tattoo done in an unofficial location (such as a friend's bedroom) where the equipment hasn’t been properly cleaned, and the ink is homemade, there is a very high chance that one of the millions of types of infection-causing bacteria will be transferred into your tattoo wound.

This very often greatly increases the risk of an infection forming, especially if the area of skin isn’t properly disinfected after the session.

It is imperative that you find a good tattoo artist to do the work for you.

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.

Antibacterial Soap

Cleaning your tattoo with a 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 artists give their customers a printed sheet containing detailed instructions about how to care for their new tattoo, some 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 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 Tattoo Wrap

Don't get worried if you see a site like this - slight bleeding is completely normal

Once your tattoo has been completed, your 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 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 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, sweaty, 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.

Heavily Scabbing Tattoo

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 re-invites germs and bacteria into the area, increasing the risk of your tattoo getting infected.

Scratching The Tattoo

Scratching a tattoo is much like pulling the scabs off, but is in fact much more dangerous.

Not only are you very likely to rip scabs away from the skin when you scratch your tattoo, which can lead to bleeding, heavier scabbing, and even scarring, but you are also transferring millions of bacteria that live underneath your fingernails straight onto your open wound.

So, while gently picking scabs off of a tattoo only opens up a wound for germs to enter (still bad); scratching your tattoo opens the area up to germs and then directly transfers them straight onto the wound (very bad).

Itchy Tattoo

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.

Always shower with a new tattoo (for a maximum of 7-8 minutes), and never bathe. When taking a bath you are essentially sitting in the germs that have been scrubbed away from the rest of your body, and these germs and can potentially cause infections if they come into contact with your tattoo.

Shower to relieve itching

Letting Others Touch The Tattoo

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.

Dirty Hands

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.

how to wash your hands

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 skin which is the perfect place for bacteria to breed.

Lotion on tattoo

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

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) tattoo aftercare product called Hustle Butter. This stuff works amazingly well during the healing process - not only to keep your tattoo really well hydrated, but it's also very good at soothing that annoying itching and irritation.

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 too much damage.

However, various life choices can greatly affect the immune system and decrease its effectiveness when it comes to fighting off an infection.

For example, if you eat a healthy and balanced diet while getting good amounts of sleep throughout the healing process, then you're giving your immune system the best chance of fighting away any potential threats.

Sleeping with a new tattoo

Alternatively, if you decide to only get 4 hours of sleep a night, or decide to go out and get drunk 3 nights a week during the most important healing stages, then you’re suddenly much more likely to contract an infection due to your less-than-optimal immune system and healing capabilities.

Medical Conditions

Various medical conditions and afflictions can also greatly affect the capabilities of your immune system.

Because of this, 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.

Contracting a virus, disease or other illness around the time of getting your tattoo can also weaken the immune system.

Is My Tattoo Infected!? The Signs & Symptoms Of An Infected Tattoo

Blisters on infected tattoo

You must be aware that the symptoms of a tattoo infection will vary greatly depending on many different factors, including: The type of bacteria causing the infection, the location of the infection, the size of the wound, how your body responds to the infection, and how long the infection is present before treatment commences.

Below is a list of the most common visual/physical symptoms of an infected tattoo. While you will very rarely experience all of the symptoms at once - generally, the more symptoms that are showing concurrently, the more likely that an infection will be present.

Infected Tattoo

An extremely infected tattoo displaying many different symptoms at once

It should also be stated that you mustn’t become too alarmed if your new tattoo shows signs of a few of the common symptoms listed below, like redness, mild pain and swelling. These symptoms are also likely to appear on a healthy tattoo that is healing exactly how it should be.

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 go away.

Shower

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.

Rash

A rash can present in many different shapes, sizes, textures and colors. Whilst many rashes will just be red and smooth, many will also be bumpy and pimply.

tattoo rash

Whilst a rash on a tattoo commonly just 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 area.

infected tattoo rash

A rash within a tattoo that also looks infected due to the deep scabbing and broken skin

Infected tattoo with white spots and rash
White spots on infected tattoo

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.

tattoo redness and swelling

Hot To The Touch

Most tattoos will be warm to the touch for a few days due to the body’s natural healing reaction to 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. More so if the itching doesn’t go away after tempting to soothe the area.

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


Swelling

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.

Infected and Swollen Tattoo

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.

Tattoo Infection 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.

Blistering

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.

Infected tattoo with blisters

Pimples/Boils That Discharge/Ooze 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, 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.

white spots and tattoo 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 on the first couple of days, it’s likely to be completely normal.

Tattoo infection with spots and pimples

Foul Odor

Foul odor being omitted from a tattoo is normally accompanied by oozing and pussing, and is generally a sign that there’s an infection taking place. Get the tattoo looked at by a professional.

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.

Tattoo Infection Blood Poisoning

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.

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.

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

Remember

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 an infections tend to be much worse than common side-effects of healing, and whereas symptoms caused by general healing will slowly go away, symptoms of an 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 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.

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

Infected and red tattoo

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 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.

Cloth Tattoo Wrap

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/artist’s opinion on bandaging before proceeding to attempt it yourself.

Keep Away From Direct Sunlight

A new tattoo is very sensitive to UV rays at the best of times, and will likely be doubly sensitive and much more prone to burning if it’s infected. Therefore, you should do your best to keep the tattoo out of direct sunlight until it's completely healed.

Sun cream will most likely aggravate the problem further and suffocate the wound, so do not apply any kind of sun tanning lotion to the wound while it's healing, either.

Take Anti Inflammatories

If your tattoo has become very swollen, then taking an anti inflammatory such as aspirin should help to increase comfort levels by reducing the swelling to a more manageable level.

Take Painkillers

If your tattoo is particularly sore and painful then taking painkillers may help to alleviate any suffering.

Always seek advice from a doctor before taking any new medication

What Happens After a Tattoo Infection?

It's relatively hard to predict the outcome after suffering an infection on a new tattoo.

A tattoo with only a very minor infection should recover with minimal long-term damage.

A moderate infection that covers quite a large area of the tattoo may cause some fading and patchy areas of ink. Hopefully, however, your artist should be able to touch up these areas and restore the appearance.

A major infection that goes deep into the skin and covers large areas of the tattoo might not have such a great outcome, unfortunately. These types of infection can cause large areas of fading, not to mention scarring and permanent dips/grooves in the skin from where the infection was eating away at local tissue.

Tattoo Infection

Healing times can also vary greatly depending on the type of infection, the severity of it, and what medication/treatment is being administered.

If your infection is relatively severe, you may unfortunately not be able to ever restore the tattoo to its intended appearance, and you may even have to laser (remove) the tattoo if it becomes completely disfigured.

However, your first step should always be to go back to your artist to ask for their professional opinion on what to do next in the interest of your tattoo’s appearance, and whether it can be restored or not.

Summary

As you can see, tattoo infections really can be unpleasant. However, by being aware of the causes, signs, and symptoms, you should better equipped to avert the threat of infection.

Infection rates remain low where proper sanitary conditions are met in the tattoo studio, and correct aftercare routines are followed during the healing process.

Don’t forget that by getting an infected tattoo looked at by a professional as quickly as possible, you have the best chance of saving your ink, and therefore giving it the greatest chance to flourish once recovered.

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