Before Getting A Tattoo, Know The Risks

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Portrait of pierced teen girl

“Tattoo regret” is very common among teenagers

Did you know that approximately 1 in 5 Americans has a tattoo? In the 18- to 30-year-old age group, that number increases to almost 30%. In a recent study cited in an article in Pediatric News, 16% of those surveyed regretted at least one tattoo. For those who got their first tattoo younger than 17, the number rose to 35%. 

Mason Gomberg MD

Mason Gomberg MD

Other studies have estimated the “regret” rate to be between 16-44%. Disturbingly, the Pediatric News study also stated that 93% of people with tattoos thought that tattoo artists were the best source for information on tattoo complications (rather than doctors).

The study also found that 18% of respondents received their tattoo at “someplace other than a tattoo parlor” and that over 20% had received tattoos while intoxicated. For parents giving permission and for teens getting tattoos on their own, be careful and be safe if you decide to get a tattoo or piercing.

How tattoos are applied

A tattoo is a permanent mark or design created on your skin with pigments inserted through pricks into the skin’s top layer (epidermis). Typically, the tattoo artist uses a hand-held machine with one or more needles piercing the skin repeatedly. With every puncture, the needles insert tiny ink droplets. This process, done without anesthetics, causes a small amount of bleeding and slight- to potentially-significant pain.

The risks of getting a tattoo

Tattoos break the skin, making skin infections and other complications possible, including:

Allergic reactions. Tattoo dyes — especially red, green, yellow and blue — can cause allergic reactions at the tattoo site, such as an itchy rash. This can occur even years after getting the tattoo. Also, in some people, a semi-permanent henna tattoo has been associated with a severe allergic skin reaction and permanent scarring.

Skin infections. A bacterial skin infection is possible after tattooing.

Other skin problems. Sometimes bumps called granulomas form around tattoo ink. Tattooing also can lead to keloids — raised areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue.

Bloodborne diseases. If the equipment used to create your tattoo is contaminated with infected blood, you can contract various blood-borne diseases including HIV, tetanus, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

MRI complications. On rare occasions, tattoos can cause swelling or burning in the affected areas during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exams. In some cases, tattoo pigments can interfere with the quality of the image.

Medication or other treatment might be needed if you experience an allergic reaction to the tattoo ink or develop an infection or other skin problem near a tattoo.

Safety precautions you should take when getting a tattoo

To make sure your tattoo will be applied safely, you need to ask these questions BEFORE getting a tattoo:

Who will be doing the tattooing? Go to a reputable, licensed tattoo establishment that employs only properly trained, experienced employees. Keep in mind that regulation requirements and licensing standards vary from state to state. Check with your city, county or state health department for information on local licensing and regulations.

Will the tattoo artist wear gloves? Make sure the tattoo artist washes his or her hands and wears a fresh pair of sterile protective gloves for each procedure.

Does the tattoo artist use proper equipment? Make sure the tattoo artist removes the needle and tubes from sealed packages before your procedure begins. Any pigments, trays or containers should be unused as well.

Does the tattoo artist sterilize non-disposable equipment? Make sure the tattoo artist uses a heat sterilization machine (autoclave) to sterilize all non-disposable equipment between customers. Instruments and supplies that can’t be sterilized with an autoclave (including drawer handles, tables and sinks) should be disinfected with a commercial disinfectant or bleach solution after each use.

Piercings also come with risks

At Westchester Health Pediatrics, many of our patients have gotten piercings at a tattoo parlor, which, just like tattoos, carry risks. An oral piercing can cause substantial bleeding. Many pierced sites can become infected. Recently, a patient told me he was instructed by his tattoo artist to keep the pierced metal in his skin if the area became infected…clearly the incorrect advice!

Take proper care of your tattoo

The way you should care for your new tattoo depends on the type and extent of work done. Typically, however, you’ll need to:

Remove the bandage after 24 hours. Apply an antibiotic ointment to the tattooed skin while it’s healing.

Keep the tattooed skin clean. Use soap and water and a gentle touch to clean the entire tattoo area. While showering, avoid direct streams of water on your newly tattooed skin. Pat (don’t rub) the area dry.

Use moisturizer. Apply a mild moisturizer to the tattooed skin several times a day.

Avoid sun exposure. Keep the tattooed area out of the sun for at least a few weeks.

Avoid swimming. Stay out of pools, hot tubs, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water while your tattoo is healing.

Choose clothing carefully. Don’t wear anything that might stick to the tattoo.

Allow up to 2 weeks for your tattoo to heal. Important: Do not pick at any scabs. This can increase the risk of infection, damage the design and cause scarring.

If you develop a problem, it’s very important to see a doctor

If your tattoo or piercing isn’t healing properly or you think it might be infected, contact your physician. If you’re interested in having your tattoo removed, ask a dermatologist about laser surgery or other options for tattoo removal.

Remember, there’s nothing inherently bad about getting a tattoo but you need to know the risks and how to avoid them before deciding to take this (in most cases) permanent step.

By Mason Gomberg, MD, a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics.

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About the Author: ML Ball