for tattooed people, and those who want to be

It could be worse… Tattoo health issues 4


Most reactions to new tattoos are fairly mild, and temporary. Swelling, scabbing, weeping ink, peeling skin and itching are all normal in the aftermath of getting inked. Take common-sense precautions and all will be well.a clean tattoo in progress

However, there are more serious things that can happen and it is important to be aware and be prepared. Going to a reputable, clean tattoo parlor is just the first step in avoiding serious problems. The serious problems I’m going to talk about next are uncommon. But that doesn’t mean you can dismiss the possibility of it happening to you.

My skin ‘asplode?

If you notice sudden, severe swelling, pain in your joints, the appearance of hives anywhere on your body, or shortness of breath, get yourself to an emergency room, pronto. This is an indication of a severe allergic reaction and it can be life-threatening in very short order. You need medical treatment–home remedies will not do. Your doctor can decide the best course of action. Unfortunately, when the allergen is injected into the skin, treatment is more complicated than it would be if inhaled or simply came in contact with your skin and produced a reaction.

Allergic reactions can come without warning, even if you’ve been tattooed before with absolutely no problems. Our bodies get sensitized to things over time, especially with all the chemicals and crap in the environment worldwide these days. The trauma of a new open wound filled with ink may be just the last straw as far as your body’s immune system is concerned. You may be lucky and it may be a reaction to whatever ointment or antiseptic your skin was treated with–your doctor can help you figure that out.

And, of course, once you’ve gotten treatment, if the cause of the reaction is the tattoo ink, you need to have a clear understanding that you cannot risk getting tattooed again.

Weeping, oozing and more

Even if you’ve taken proper precautions, your new tattoo can still get infected. It’s one of a long list of reasons why you should say no to plastic wrap, right from the get-go. The makers of plastic wrap don’t sterilize their product, because it’s not intended to be slapped on open wounds. The plastic wrap, besides being contaminated with who-knows-what, can seal in environmental contaminants as well, long enough for them to take hold in your system and start an infection. If the artist whips out the plastic wrap, insist on having a sterile bandage instead.

It’s normal for a new tattoo to ooze and weep color for a while, sometimes for several days, as the healing process begins. But if the skin around the tattoo remains red, swollen, and hot, and if you see any evidence of blisters or pus, it’s time to seek medical advice. Catch an infection early and it can be cleared up early. If you piddle around hoping it will go away on its own, you may end up with a crater where your ink was supposed to be. Do not pick at the scabs, or pop blisters or try to squeeze out pus. You’ll just make things infinitely worse. You can try applying hot compresses (clean cloth dipped in boiled water and allowed to cool to a temperataure you can stand). Some people suggest trying a topical antibiotic, but that may or may not make a difference, since it might not be able to penetrate to where the infection is.

In any case, if there is evidence of infection, don’t try home remedies for more than a day or so at the most. You don’t want to risk ending up with damaged skin and lingering, serious problems. Should you see red streaks coming from the tattoo, or if your lymph nodes are swollen, or if you have a fever, seek medical treatment as fast as you can.

The life you save…

Many people are reluctant to go see a doctor these days, because let’s face it, medical care is expensive. But if you are having a serious problem after getting a tattoo, it is important to get medical attention as fast as you can. The cost of a visit to the ER is going to be a lot less than the cost of long-term hospitalization… or of your funeral.

These problems (allergic reaction and infection) are uncommon, especially if you’ve gone to a reputable artist and have taken proper care of your skin afterwards–but they do happen. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes.

In the next post, I will take up the most serious (and, fortunately, the most uncommon) health problems that multicolored people might face.

photo credit: macwagen

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Author: infmom

I got my first tattoo when I was 46. I hope the people who read this blog don't have to wait that long. I love talking about body art.


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  7. Julialeigh, I don’t know if the reaction on your hands has anything to do with your tattoo. It’d be a good idea to go back to your doctor and have that checked out. It could be completely unrelated, but you won’t know till a doctor takes a look at it.

  8. i had a tattoo on my ankles done two days ago. i have many tattoos and have never had a reaction to them. however, within 24 hours of my tattoo my fingers on both my hand and swollen so large i was no longer able to move them. the reaction was only in my fingers, however, and i did not think to tell the doctor that i had had a tattoo done the day before because my tattoo was healing perfectly without a single sign of irritation anywhere around my feet. the swelling has gone done after the doctor gave me a shot, but the hives are continuing to appear all over my hands. my question is: can allergic reactions to a tattoo manifest in a different locations on the body? and could this be in anyway related to my tattoo?

  9. I started my sleeve 4 weeks ago and I am due next week for another session. This would be my second tattoo now. It is the first time I have red and white on my skin. So far after a month my tattoo healed fine nothing unusual. But this week I started having crazy asthma problems for almost a week now. I’m not sure if it is a cold or the tattoo causing the problem. But I don’t feel sick. :s If it were allergies to the ink, would I have had problems right in the first week I got the job done?? I’m also worried if I go to my next session will it be worse?? Any suggestions???

  10. Daywalker: No idea what the problem might be or whether another country’s ink would be different from that in the country where you live. I’d give it more time to heal, and if it still looks bad, find a good, reputable local artist and ask his or her opinion on the best course of action.

  11. Hi,

    I got a small tattoo while travelling about one week ago on my left wrist. The tattoo was done all in red.
    I’m concerned because most of the ink seems to have flaked off with the scabbing and the design looks more like a burn now (instead of clear lines of the design it’s thicker ‘fuzzy’ lines)
    The area doesn’t hurt and isn’t oozing at all but still looks really pink. It’s a bit dry so it’s slightly itchy, but not very much. Should I be worried or give it a bit more time to heal? i have two other tatoos and neither one reacted this way.
    I can’t go back to the artist because i’m no longer in the country i had the tattoo done in.
    any advice is appreciated!

  12. got a fairly detailed tattoo on my wrist yesterday afternoon and woke up with my arm swollen. I wasn’t able to move my wrist or hand because they were so swollen. my arm looks like a marshmallow!!

    but what bothers me the most is that my chest feels really tight and my throat is swollen.

    this is not my first tattoo but this has been the first to scare me. what is wrong w me? am I overreacting and this is probably normal?

  13. Jess, it could be because your neck moves a lot and stretches the skin. But I think you should go back to your artist and talk about it. There may be other things you can do to help it heal.

  14. I got a tat 5 days ago it’s on the back of my neck, it is reLly wet still N keeps weeping so much it runs down my neck, I have stopes using any cremes I’m just trying to Let it dry, I have 4 other tattoos which didn’t weepthis much but is it because it’s on my neck n I keep moving it? It get tight and like pulls alot when I move also I think there is little bumps around the tat is it freaking me out !

  15. B900, you need to wait till the skin is healed. If you’re going to go to another artist, you should make an appointment to talk with him or her about what you’ll want to have done, and the artist can tell you how long you should wait.

  16. Hi i had a tatoo 2 weeks ago on the side of my hand it has scabbed and peeled but has left me with a blister uder one patch i need this tatoo re done as the guy didnt do it propley but i dont know weather its too soon and weather its safe to get it done over the blister?

  17. Teknotaz, go back to your artist as soon as you can and ask for advice. Scabbing, cracking and peeling are all normal, but your artist needs to take a look and see if it needs more attention.

  18. Hi I had a tattoo on my forearm 4days ago. It’s scabbed up and now cracking and peeling today I’ve noticed under some of the more pronounced scabs it’s oozing slight pus. I have no other symptoms of infection at all. What should I do? It’s my first tattoo

  19. mrcherch, I don’t know if anyone could say for sure that your throat problem and the tattoo were related. It might just have been a coincidence. If you want to get more tattoos, be sure you mention this to your artist ahead of time and see what he or she thinks about it.

  20. I had a tattoo about 1yr ago, completely healed. When I got it tho, the night after getting it, I woke up with a swollen throat. had to take some benadryl and it seemed to go away. The tattoo itself never got red, scab or hives. This was the 1st tattoo I ever got, but I want to get another one. Do you think the “reaction” will be worse or get worse as I get more ink done? I also dont know if I had a reaction to something else, as far as I know I am not allergic to anything.. What do you think?

  21. Anna, you’d better go see a doctor about that as soon as you can. It might be an allergic reaction or it might be something else, but your doctor’s the best one to figure that out.

  22. got a fairly detailed tattoo on my wrist yesterday afternoon and woke up with my arm swollen. I wasn’t able to move my wrist or hand because they were so swollen. my arm looks like a marshmallow!!

    but what bothers me the most is that my chest feels really tight and my throat is swollen.

    this is not my first tattoo but this has been the first to scare me. what is wrong w me? am I overreacting and this is probably normal?

  23. Heather, I don’t think that’s anything to be worried about. If it’s still like that after a week, though, you might want to talk with your artist about it and see if he/she has any suggestions. Just make sure to keep it clean and follow the aftercare instructions you were given.

  24. I got a tattoo 5 days ago on my fourarm. 5 butterflies. I noticed a few days ago that only two of the butterflies have little bump like blisters. every butterfly is a different color. I have no other problems with the tat. its not hot or swelled. it looks as if its healing fine. still a little painful. specialy when i put my arm down to my side. I have not experienced this with my other tats. Should I be worried?

  25. What a super blog. Well done.

  26. People can definitely develop allergies over time, or grow less sensitive to things that formerly gave them trouble. My husband ate crab when he was younger, but now it makes him violently ill. My mother was allergic to shellfish as a young woman but eventually was able to eat shrimp. I guess there are no constants in human medicine!

  27. i have had a tattoo 2 weeks ago and it has scabbed over and they have come off. But it is still lumpy in places. Is this normal as it is itchy aswell??
    thanks nikki

    • Yes, that’s normal. Remember, you have what is essentially a wound in your skin. It’s like falling down and skinning your knee, only a lot more fun. 🙂

      However, if the lumpiness and itchiness continue, it’d be a good idea to go talk with your artist about it and see if he or she has practical suggestions.

  28. Hi There,

    My girlfriend got a small tatoo across her wrist on March 12, 2009. About 3-4 weeks later she started getting small rashes and red bumps all over her body. Over the last 2 months shes now been getting hives that flare up on her shoulders, forehead, and back. They normally last anywhere from 6-18 hours. They are often times very itchy and sometimes painful. We’ve been looking at food allergies and anything that may have changed in her diet or lifestyle but not sure if the tatoo and or ink should be considered an option. Her actual tatoo itself is fine and has suffered no discoloration or reaction itself.

    Please advise.

    • I think the best course of action would be to go see a doctor as soon as possible. It may or may not be the tattoo ink that’s causing the problem–but it’s better to let a medical professional find out for sure.

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