Tattoo Infection: Reasons, Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

Written by: Jason White

Tattoos are an increasingly popular phenomenon in today’s society and the number of tattooed people continues to rise. However, with that popularity comes to some important risks that arise from not taking proper care of your tattoos and lack of sterility. For a tattoo to be safe and healthy, there are many instructions you must follow correctly before and after you finish getting your tattoo. However, it is still possible to experience side-effects after getting a tattoo.

Tattoo infections are often due to bacteria or fungi on the skin surface prior to getting a tattoo. Tattoo infections are caused by the reaction of the human body to foreign materials, specifically tattoo ink pigments that have been placed into subdermal layers of the skin. These reactions are called inflammatory processes. Tattoos that are improperly done increase the risk of infection exponentially. Improperly done tattoos often result in an outcome that is less than desired aesthetically and results in a larger number and wider range of tattoo ink particles and colorants to be used (up to 10%) resulting in further complications.

The most common infection that people run into is a “staph” or staphylococcus aureus bacterial infection, however, other infections can pop up as well. If you do not take care of your tattoo appropriately after it heals, this can lead to very bad consequences, such as death from an infection spreading throughout your body. Therefore, it is extremely important to follow these guidelines and steps after you get a tattoo in order to live a healthy and happy lifestyle!

Moreover, dyes in some colors, especially reds and blues, are more likely to cause an infection than others. This is because pigments of these colors contain metal salts that are more allergenic than other compositions.

Body piercing carries similar risks of infection as tattoos do because they both require punctures in the skin.

What Causes Tattoo Infections?

Tattoo infections can be either bacterial or viral. Bacterial infections may be caused by organisms such as streptococci and staphylococci. Viral infections may be caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), chickenpox (varicella-zoster), and human papillomavirus (HPV).

Here is a list of possibilities of how you can get infections from getting a tattoo:

  • Through the needles and other consumables. Check if the tattoo artist opens a new package of the tattoo needle before your tattoo appointment if he uses disposable ink caps.
  • Cross-contamination. If the tattoo artist works on more than one person at a time, he can contract an infection from another client. The most common ways for this to happen are if the tattoo artist doesn’t clean his equipment properly after each client. For example, some pen-shaped tattoo machines are structurally designed so that there is some probability of blood particles and other human fluids getting inside the design. To avoid contamination in such cases, tattoo artists should autoclave their equipment after each client. Also, make sure that the workplace is covered with protective film and the wire from the tattoo machine is packed in a protective bag. All these are precautions, and failure to comply with them can cost you your health.
  • The tattooed skin area is infected. This may occur if the skin was not clean and sterile before the tattooing. An example of this would be a cut or scratch on the skin that becomes infected by bacteria from dirty tools.
  • Filthy environment. Look around the tattoo artist’s workplace as well as in the tattoo parlor, whether it is clean and the tattoo artists wear gloves. A tattoo parlor must be sterile as in a hospital!
  • Contaminated Ink. Contaminated ink is considered a source of infection if a bacterial infection begins in one part of the tattoo of one particular color and remains more severe at that locus. It can later spread to other parts of the infected tattoo. After recovery, there may be visible loss of tattoo dye in areas where contaminated ink has been used. That’s why it is important to buy only proven tattoo inks from global manufacturers. They are sealed and bottled in the conditions of a drug factory.
  • Improper aftercare procedures. Ranging from not cleaning the tattooed area often enough, to applying lotions that contain allergens.

Thus, people who are not aware that the tattoo artist has used unclean equipment, have inadequate sterilization procedures, or have insufficient skills can easily get an infection. But if you make sure that your tattoo artist adheres to all the rules of sterility, then you should not worry, the risk of infection is minimal.

Reactions To Tattoos

There are different reactions of the body to tattooing.

Allergic reaction

An allergic reaction to the ingredients of tattoo inks can cause a rash, redness, and itching around the tattoo. Usually, this is a temporary skin reaction that will disappear when the body gets rid of the ink particles it has recognized as foreign or harmful. But sometimes there could be more serious consequences.

Patients with skin diseases and any kind of allergies diagnosed with metal allergies are at risk. Therefore, it is important to consult an allergist before getting a tattoo and consider skin testing the dyes.

Skin infections

The immediate, first and most serious danger of tattooing is bacterial contamination. Different skin infections are caused by bacteria and fungi contaminating the skin. Good professional tattoo artists use new sterile needles for each person or pour fresh ink into single-use disposable containers that only need to be used once, which reduces the risk of infection compared to using previously used materials. Infections can range from mild irritation and swelling to cellulitis, which spreads along the lymphatic channels, requires hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics. Sometimes this type of skin infection travels through blood vessels and lymphatic channels to involve deeper tissue layers leading to abscesses which can possibly require surgical removal.

Also, if the tattoo is not well cared for, purulent inflammation can develop and, as a consequence, Staphylococcus aureus.


Sometimes tattooing may be followed by lymphadenopathy (enlarged lymph node) in certain areas of the body, which can remain for several weeks after tattooing.

Viral diseases

Dangerous diseases can be transmitted through blood if the equipment is contaminated with contaminated blood. These include hepatitis B and C, tetanus, and HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). Infection with these diseases occurs if the tattoo artist has allowed cross-contamination, that is, for one client’s bodily fluids to come into contact with another client.

Keloid scars

In some people, the trauma of tattooing can cause a post-traumatic inflammatory reaction resulting in scar tissue forming at the site. This generally results in hypertrophy (enlargement) because the body’s response to injury is to send cells that form fleshy scars to patch up injuries rather than heal them properly. Learn more about keloid scars and tattoos.

Pigment Overloading

Another complication is the injecting of too much dye into the skin to make the tattoo very bright. Tattoo ink overloading leads to medical complications due to agglomeration of the dye over time with the formation of foreign bodies in the dermis. It is expected that the excessive amount of tattoo inks will be absorbed by the dressing after the procedure is completed – however, this does not happen. The color of such a tattoo is unusually dense, and the overloaded part of the skin may rise above the healthy skin. The tattooed skin may periodically or permanently thicken with papules and nodules, become inflamed, and the patient will experience itching, soreness, and sensitivity to sunlight even after the healing process is finished.

Skin atrophy

The impact on the skin is often temporary, but in some cases, tattooing can damage or destroy dermal collagen which can lead to permanent sagging and wrinkling of the affected area.

Granulomas and sarcoidosis

Granulomas (hardened masses of inflamed cells) and sarcoidosis (inflammatory conditions that affect most major organ systems) are rare conditions but they can also be caused by tattooing.


In rare cases, tattooing can trigger psoriasis which is a chronic skin disease caused by the immune system going into overdrive to produce too many skin cells which means it doesn’t have enough healthy ones. The excess cells pile up resulting in red scaly patches, often with white or silvery scales on top.

Burns during an MRI exam

In some cases, the magnetic resonance imaging may feel a burning, tingling sensation at the tattoo area. This is due to the fact that some tattoo inks still use iron particles and they react to a strong magnetic field. However, modern inks contain practically no iron, and such reactions are rather exotic.

Skin cancer risk

Some components of dye, such as benzopyrene dibutyl phthalate, can cause malignant neoplasms that disrupt the body’s hormonal activity. Tattooing can also cause skin cancer since it involves these components. The risks are low, but no level of UV radiation exposure is considered safe.

Still, it is worth noting that skin cancer developed at the site of the tattoo was recorded in 30 cases. To prove the connection between tattoos and skin cancer it is necessary to conduct larger studies. On the basis of thirty, or even fifty episodes such conclusions are not made.

Symptoms of an Infected Tattoo

There can be different symptoms of tattoo infection, including:

  • The body art hurts a lot
  • Redness extends beyond the tattoo or the tattoo site is badly swollen
  • Unpleasant odor
  • Blistering
  • Swollen glands in the armpit or groin
  • Abnormal discharge from the site of the tattoo
  • Fever and chills
  • Headache Fatigue
  • Aches and pains in multiple joints

What To Do When Symptoms Appear

You will have to visit a doctor. The doctor may prescribe some oral antibiotics, depending on the location of the infection and the type of bacteria or fungi that is causing it. If it is a fungal infection, antifungal medication may be prescribed. The doctor might also ask you questions about your lifestyle choices and habits which could be a cause of infection.

In some cases, your tattoo artist might try to treat the infection but it will most likely not work because he or she does not have access to the supplies needed.

Treating an Infected Tattoo

Typically, a tattoo infection can be treated with topical antibiotics such as bacitracin. Tattoo infections can usually be treated with minor surgery or antibiotic treatment; however, some cases may require more advanced measures such as surgical debridement (removal of nonviable tissue). If the infection is serious and has entered the bloodstream, hospitalization may be required for intravenous antibiotics and other intravenous fluids. The treatment of bacterial infections should be started as soon as possible to prevent the infection from spreading throughout the body. If the infection is very serious or is left untreated, it can lead to death. So skin infection of this kind requires immediate intervention by an experienced dermatologist, who will not only diagnose correctly but also prescribe the most effective treatment.

A tattoo infection can be treated by administering a Povidone-iodine solution, benzoyl peroxide cream, and oral antibiotics. In addition to these methods, one should follow up with their doctor if they feel that their infection is not improving.

If the infected tattoos are caused by an allergic reaction, then the most common treatment is taking antihistamines and steroid injections. But in extreme cases, when steroids do not help, part of the tattooed skin must be surgically removed.

Preventing Tattoo Infections

If you follow these steps, your likelihood of getting an infection will be very low.

  1. Always make sure to find an experienced, licensed professional tattoo artist. This person should be able to provide proof of their licensing and experience. Make sure they clean and sterilize their equipment and only use fresh, new tattoo needles every time they tattoo.
  2. If you want to be extra safe even though this is already a requirement for most experienced artists, look into the tattoo parlor your artist works at by checking reviews or looking up other information about it online. You should also make sure that all of the needles and supplies are disposed of properly after each tattoo appointment.
  3. Proper tattoo aftercare during the healing process. Keep your tattoo clean, dry, and away from water for the first few weeks while the fresh tattoo heals so you don’t get any infections or water damage that can cause other health problems down the road. You should also avoid baths, pools, hot tubs, sun tanning until your tattoo is fully healed.
  4. Make sure you are eating very well, drinking plenty of fluids, and getting enough sleep to keep your immune system strong. The better condition you are in, the less chance there is for infections to form on tattoos that are not taking proper care of.
  5. If any spots or marks show up on your tattoo or if you feel an unusual pain somewhere, go see a doctor immediately. The worst thing you can do here is to ignore it and hope it goes away because many times infections like this can spread and cause serious problems down the road if not treated appropriately and quickly!
  6. If you are extremely worried about infections, you can always purchase antibiotic ointment or cream to apply to your tattoo once it is healed to help prevent any infections from occurring. But this is an extreme measure, as this ointment can provoke yellow skin pigmentation and distort the colors of the tattoo.

However, even if you do not get an infection at first, watch out for things that are changing on or around your tattoos, such as redness, swelling, pus formation, unusual pain around the areas of your tattoo, or discoloration. All of these things can be signs of infection and if they appear you should get to a doctor right away before it becomes worse.

In addition to these steps, washing your hands before touching your tattoo will help avoid infection.

It is also a good idea to listen to your tattoo artist’s recommendations when you get a new tattoo, they should tell you how long to wait before your tattoo will heal fully and it is safe from tattoo infections. For example, many tattoo artists recommend waiting at least two weeks to get into any pools or hot tubs after getting a new tattoo because water exposure can irritate the injury.

Bottom Line

Tattoos are becoming extremely popular in today’s society and the number of people with tattoos continues to rise. However, for a tattoo to be safe and healthy, there are many important things that you must do. Infections could happen all the time in tattoo parlors across the country and if a client does not take care of their tattoos, they can get very sick or even die from an infection. Therefore, it is extremely important to follow these guidelines.

Hopefully, you found this article interesting. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions that we can help answer! Thank You for reading and hope you come back soon to read more about tattoo health! 

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