Love them or hate them, tattoos are here to stay. Tattoos provide ways for people to express themselves, honor loved ones, and serve as a permanent reminder of a life changing event. Due to the permanent nature of tattoos, getting inked is no small decision. Anyone considering a tattoo, be it their first or their tenth, should spend time thinking, designing, and researching before going under the needle.
The risk of permanent regret (a misspelled word, or your now ex’s initials in a heart on your arm) is not the only consideration when getting a tattoo. There are definite health risks involved, especially in that first week post-ink, that many don’t think about that can have dangerous, or even deadly, consequences. This 31-year old Latino man from Texas is a tragic reminder of the risks involved and the importance of tattoo after-care.
Man Dies from Infected Tattoo
A 31 year old Latino man from Texas has died after swimming with a new tattoo. The case study that studied the cause of his death has kept his identity hidden. (1, 2)
Five days after getting a new tattoo on his leg, this man went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Three days later, we went to a hospital in Dallas complaining of severe pain in both of his legs and feet, fever, chills, and redness around his tattoo and on his legs. (1, 2)
“He said he had a lot of pain in [his right leg]. That, of course, drew our attention right away.” said Dr. Nicholas Hendren, lead author of the report. “Within a few hours, things had progressed pretty quickly. There’s darkening skin changes, more bruising, more discoloration, what we call bullae — or mounds of fluid that were starting to collect in his legs — which, of course, is very alarming to anyone, as it was to us.” (1)
The man was in the early stages of septic shock, which progressed to severe within twelve hours. His condition was exacerbated by his chronic liver disease, as he reportedly drank six 12-ounce beers every day. (1, 2)
Hendren and the other physicians concluded that he had Virbo vinificus, a bacteria found commonly in coastal ocean water. According to the CDC, vibrosis causes 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in America every year. (1, 2)
Risk Factors for Vibrosis:
- Liver disease
- Thalassemia (rare blood disorder)
Most cases are caused by eating raw oysters, however, some infections can be caused by contaminated salt water. Most healthy people may experience vomiting and diarrhea but won’t need hospitalization. (1, 2)
While the man showed signs of improvement initially, he eventually succumbed to septic shock two months after being admitted to the hospital. (1, 2)
The Importance of Tattoo After Care
Dr. Hendren did not have the opportunity to ask the man if he was aware that swimming is not advised so soon after getting a new tattoo, but stressed the importance of proper tattoo aftercare. (1, 2)
When you get a tattoo, you are essentially putting a series of tiny wounds in your skin that are marked with ink. These wounds provide optimal pathways for germs and bacteria to enter your body. Your skin can take anywhere from 7-14 days to look fully healed, and up to a month before it has truly healed below the surface. (1, 3, 4)
There are several steps you must take before and after getting your tattoo to ensure protection from infections.
Before Your Tattoo
Fully research the tattoo artist and studio before going under the needle. It’s best if you can actually visit the tattoo parlor beforehand, so you can see for yourself that the place is clean and that they use safe or proper techniques and cleaning methods. Things to look for are: (1, 3, 4)
- The artist cleans the tattoo with green tattoo soap, water, and maybe witch hazel (though not required) immediately after finishing.
- The artist should apply a thin coat of a clear anti-bacterial ointment.
- The artist bandages with a sterile absorbing pad. If you see them using paper towels, scotch or masking tape, do not get a tattoo done there.
Note: If the tattoo is particularly large or in a difficult place to use a regular bandage, they may use a clear plastic film. This is fine, but don’t leave this on for more than an hour or two to prevent moisture build up (perfect for bacteria!)
Tattoo After Care
- First few hours and days: Keep it clean and covered
- Remove the original bandage after 2 to 4 hours and clean gently, apply an antibacterial ointment multiple times a day for the first few days.
- Wash with a liquid, non-scented clear antibacterial soap, using a clean hand (nothing else), and no scrubbing.
- Do not soak your tattoo in water of any kind: Take quick, luke-warm showers, don’t allow the water to beat down on your tattoo, do not take baths, and do not go swimming until the tattoo is fully healed.
- Do not pick any scabs that may form (scabbing can last 4-10 days)
- Avoid sun exposure: This can cause uneven healing, damage your skin, cause scarring, and even effect the darkness and coloring of your new tattoo.
- Wait a few days before exercising or playing sports to avoid excessive sweating.
- Do not use saunas, even dry saunas. (3, 4)
The Bottom Line
Tattoos are fun, beautiful ways to express yourself, remember or pay tribute to an important person or event in your life. It is important to remember before getting one that
a) Tattoos are permanent, and
b) They come with risks
As with any modification to your body, whether it be a piercing, a tattoo, or something else, it is critical that you fully research the risks and be sure you are making an informed decision. Don’t be afraid to ask your tattoo artist questions or get second opinions if you are unsure about any of the advice they give you. The general rule of thumb to follow? Take tattoo “recovery” seriously and if you get an uneasy feeling about a person or place where you are getting your tattoo, leave and go somewhere else. Your life may depend on it.
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