Getting Inked: Tattoo Health Issues

It's one of the few Polynesian words to make it into the English language, but tattoos have become an enormously pervasive part of American culture. Once the sole province of motorcycle gangs and rock stars, now it seems that everyone from college professors to your mom is sporting “ink.” If you are thinking about going under the needle, there are a few health-related points you should keep in mind.

First of all, it hurts! No anesthetic is used during the process, and the pain can range from mild to “what the heck was I thinking?!” The inks used can also cause an allergic reaction – often itchy rashes – that can persist long after the initial application.

Remember that the tattoo artist is breaking through your skin, so there will always be a risk of infection. On the extreme end of that scale is the danger of contracting any of a number of blood borne diseases such as tetanus, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. You can minimize your risk of exposure by choosing a reputable artist who works in a clean and professionally kept studio.

Other skin ailments to which the newly-tatted may fall victim include keloids and granulomas. The first are a type of scar composed primarily of collagen. They can be red, pink, or brown, and are often quite itchy. They are also permanent unless removed, usually via laser therapy.

A granuloma is an inflammation that occurs when your immune system attempts to protect your body from something it cannot eliminate. Usually those invaders are bacteria and fungi, but it is not uncommon for an immune system to treat tattoo ink in the same unwelcome fashion.

Having a tattoo can also trip you up if you have a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam performed. It is possible that the area around your tattoo will swell and burn during the MRI. It's also not unknown for the pigment of the tattoo to obscure or otherwise interfere with the results of the exam.

These are a lot of caveats, to be sure, but I am sure you will not be dissuaded if you have your heart set on that American Eagle for your left bicep. So here's a little prevention advice to minimize your tattooing risks

Use a good, reputable artist! Licensing standards vary from state to state, so do some research to see if getting some ink work done might merit a road trip. Whomever you select should wear gloves, and use brand new needles for your procedure. The artist should sterilize all her non-disposable gear with an autoclave in between customers, and all other non-disposable installations and fixings, such as sinks and drawer handles, should be disinfected prior to your work with a commercial disinfectant or bleach solution.