How to Treat Infected Tattoos
Tattoos have tumbled in and out of vogue over the years, but never really went away. In fact, tattoo art has become embedded too much in societies and has become an integral part of many cultures that it is difficult to write it off mankind’s history.
More than just a fad, tattoos served many purposes throughout generations. One of the most ancient evidence of tattoos is found to be, surprisingly, medicinal. Tattoos discovered on a 5,300-year-old mummy called “Iceman” has a total of 57 tattoos all over his body, 80% of which are inked on classical Chinese acupuncture points that indicates even medicinal. Therapeutic tattoos are still practiced to this day on St. Lawrence Island in a form of tattoo puncture or acupuncture that leaves a pigment behind. Thess “magical pigments” are believed to shut down certain passageways into the soul, obviously to ward off sickness demons. The medicinal tattoo is also practiced in Borneo by the Kayans. These are mostly done on joints, especially when members of the clan experience a sprained joint.
Throughout history and different cultures, tattoo artists employed various tools aside from needles, such as lemon thorns by the Kalinga of the Philippines, nails by the Mentawai of Indonesia, palm thorns by the Kayabi of the Brazilian Amazon, sharpened bamboo sticks, and for scarification – razors, blades, and knives.
What about inks? Believe it or not, while the FDA regulates cosmetics that are applied over the skin, there is actually no regulation for inks that get under the skin. The good old natural soot has been enthroned by various types of brightly colored inks, including tattoo inks that glow in the dark. Bright colored tattoo inks can be made from titanium dioxide, chromium, iron oxides, nickel, lead and other toxic ingredients such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a heat resistant plastic that is used to make luggage, appliance parts, and pipe fittings. Some of the ingredients are even industrial grade, such as automobile paint. Ink carriers may also contain dangerous substances such as formaldehyde and methanol.
A tattoo in itself is more than just skin deep – it is, in fact, a complicated inflammatory process. The moment the needles or thorns for that matter are driven through the outer layer of skin, leaving ink into the dermis, it alerts the body’s immune system. Your white blood cells immediately send chemicals to the affected tissues to protect your body from foreign substances. This action increases the blood flow to the tattoed area that may result in redness and warmth. At the same time, special cells called macrophages and fibroblasts also rush to the scene to try to eat up the dye and stay in the area forever. The fashionable tattoo that you proudly wear on your skin therefore are but collections of dyes that are trapped in the bellies of these special cells that are suspended in your dermis for eternity (ok, for your lifetime).
Inflammation is actually good for your body – it is the first stage of healing the wound, and tattoo pricks are just like every other wound. So the classic signs of pain and swelling, heat and redness, and maybe a raised temperature are normal phases that your body has to go through in its attempt to neutralize and destroy any toxic agents that invade your system. But like every other wound that breaches your first line of defense against bacterial infection, a tattoo is also an open invitation for bacterial invasion. Although infection is not a common occurrence, you can be a candidate for infection if you have a weakened immune system or allergies to inks, pigments or dyes. Or it could just simply be a case of unsanitary practice by the tattoo artist.
There is a saying that goes: “a stitch in time saves nine”, and “prevention is better than cure.”
The best course of action, therefore, is to avoid infection at all costs. It all begins with the tattoo artist. A professional tattoo artist will always use sterile, disposable needles, and sterilizes any material that is not disposable before reusing. He also makes sure that your skin is properly prepped before starting. It doesn’t end with your tattoo artist though. Getting proper tattoo aftercare is equally as important as getting it done right. First and foremost, you should never touch your tattoo without first washing your hands. Better still, avoid touching the area altogether, avoid having your pets lick or scratch it, don’t soak in a tub and never use a body scrub on your new tattoo.
If you’ve done all the necessary precautions, chances are your tattoos will heal without any problems. But things do go wrong as they sometimes will (remember Murphy’s law?), so it is good to be aware of the risks and how to manage them before getting a tattoo.
So how can you tell a normal inflammation from an infection? Here’s how to identify & treat an infected tattoo before damage is done.
The most common bacterial infection even with the most surface level wounds is Streptococci, which enters the skin and tissue through open cuts, bruises or wounds, then proceeds to invade the lymph nodes. Any time that the lymph nodes swell means that the immune system is fighting an intruder. Check for swelling in the nodes that are closest to the tattoo.
Redness is often perfectly normal for skin around cuts, scrapes, wounds or bruises. The warning sign to watch for however is when the redness intensifies instead of getting better in time. Inflammation is necessary for healing, but when the redness persists and spreads significantly outward the original tattooed area, it is a sure sign of infection and may even indicate blood poisoning or tetanus. This could be fatal if not treated immediately, so seek help right away.
If you feel generally weak, unusually tired, and easily exhausted and the feeling gets worse instead of feeling better day after day, chances are, you have an infection, so you better check for other symptoms.
If you’re running a fever, that means your immune system is attempting to combat an infection. Sometimes your body is just able to resolve the issue naturally, but high fever is indicative of a serious infection that may lead to complications. If your temperature reaches 101 degrees or more, won’t go away after 24 hours, and comes with other symptoms in this list, then it is best to seek medical help.
Bad bacteria emit different kinds of smell and they are often foul. Unpleasant smell indicates anaerobic (bad bacteria) colonization which usually produces foul-smelling pus, blisters, black dead tissue, abscess formation, and tissue destruction. These may occur under the skin and may not be evident at first glance, so a foul odor is a dead giveaway. If there is any tenderness, pain and redness in the areas surrounding the tattoo, then chances are, pus, abscess or tissue destruction is happening underneath the epidermis. Don’t hesitate to see your physician.
You may have noticed some clear fluid on or around the tattoo area right after the procedure. These are white blood cells called macrophages, which serve to protect the affected area. This cell helps to sanitize the wound, fights infection and initiates the healing process. They also produce chemical messengers called growth factors, which help to build new tissues. But if oozing continues after 48 hours and the fluid becomes sticky, yellow or green, then there is cause for concern – you are dealing with an infected tattoo.
7. PERSISTENT or INCREASED PAIN
While pain is part of the package, it should gradually subside as the wound starts healing. The amount of pain depends on the location, the size of the tattoed area and the design. Tattoos with a lot of shading and colors require a lot of pricking and seriously damage the skin. So depending on the area and your body’s ability to heal, the intense pain should subside in a few minutes or hours and gradually improve to being uncomfortable to itchy over each day. If the pain persists or increases in intensity, then it’s a telltale sign of an infection. Check the tattoed areas for other symptoms such as increased swelling and redness to determine an infection.
A slight amount of swelling is typical for a fresh tattoo. But if swelling becomes excessive, uncomfortable and you feel the pain radiating beyond the site of the tattoo, then this is a sign of infection. If left untreated, swelling may begin to spread out. Seek immediate medical attention!
If you find any of the signs mentioned above, or if you suspect an infection, don’t take it lightly or expect it to go away on its own. The first thing to do is go back to your tattoo artist – their experience will enable them to identify an infection and give the right recommendations. If your tattoo artist confirms that you have an infection, seek medical attention immediately – do not delay. Skin infections can spread rapidly and can be life-threatening especially if there are already red streaks. Don’t try to treat your infection on your own. Don’t even try the tricks that you find on the internet. Only a doctor can tell accurately whether it’s a staph infection, eczematous eruptions, cement dermatitis, tetanus, or just plain allergy. In any case, the doctor will know how to deal with it. It’s your life, and you should entrust it to professionals.