Symptoms of an Infected Tattoo

Updated November 1, 2022
Woman getting broken chain tattoo

Getting a tattoo should be a celebration, a personal statement, and a thoughtful acquisition of permanent body art. To make sure that your experience is positive, you should ensure that you do everything possible to prevent a tattoo infection.

It is important to learn the signs and symptoms of a potential tattoo infection and deal with any alarming post-tattoo symptoms promptly. Never ignore signs of an infected tattoo or postpone care. If you suspect your tattoo is infected, seek the advice of a healthcare professional immediately.

Infected Tattoo Symptoms

If you are new to the tattoo game, it can be hard to know what to look for after you get your ink. As you see changes to your skin, you might wonder if you are dealing with normal healing or an infection.

Hopefully, you'll never experience an infection from your body art. However, many people do develop infections during the days that follow a trip to the tattoo shop. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), infections can happen immediately or days or months after getting inked.

According to the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery (JCAS), an infection can be caused by contaminated ink, inadequate disinfection, or secondary infections from injuring the tattooed skin, so it's essential to be vigilant about watching your tattoo for complications. Thankfully, most infections are of a general nature and can be treated with proper aftercare and possibly a round of antibiotics if your healthcare professional feels that they are called for. Explore a few common symptoms of tattoo infection from the AAD and the Cleveland Clinic.

Inflammation

A small amount of inflammation/irritation can be expected on a fresh tattoo, but if it increases rather than decreases over the first 48 hours, it's a sign that you may have an infection. Watch the area carefully for changes and prolonged inflammation.

Any sign of pink to red coloration around the tattoo site indicates inflammation. Additionally, the area might begin to feel a bit itchy or prickly, and this also indicates irritation. Gently lay your clean hand over the inflamed area. Does it feel significantly warmer than the rest of your skin? Does the heat seem to radiate? While a slight amount of swelling and warmth are common in the first few days, continued inflammation could be a sign of a developing problem.

Swelling

Swelling in the immediate vicinity of the fresh tattoo will give your design a puffy and possibly distorted appearance, depending on how swollen it actually becomes. A slight amount of swelling is typical because the skin has been traumatized, but the swelling shouldn't be excessive. If the swelling begins to spread from the original site and is inflamed, this could be a sign that infection is underway.

Fever and Chills

Fever is indicated any time the body temperature reaches above 99 degrees F. A fever can range from mild to severe, depending on how long the infection has been left without treatment. According to Deutsches Arzteblatt International, infection from tattoos can develop both externally and deep inside the wound, so even if you aren't exhibiting external symptoms but have a fever, you should seek help from a healthcare professional.

Muscle Aches and General Weakness

Muscle aches and weakness are usually fever-related, although the pain may be restricted to the direct area beneath the tattoo. General weakness can also be related to a fever caused by infection, but by the time weakness sets in, the infection may have reached a more serious stage.

Pain

It's natural to feel a certain amount of discomfort or tenderness from a fresh tattoo, and the level of pain is naturally linked to how much work you've had done. For example, a simple, one-color tattoo without a lot of details involves fewer needle penetrations. On the other hand, a full-color design involves thousands more pricks, so you would expect a little more pain from that kind of design.

However, most of that initial pain should fade after the first 48 hours. If it doesn't, or if the pain increases, it's likely that the tat is in the early stages of infection and should be examined right away.

Discharge

All fresh tattoos weep a little clear serum that is usually flecked with tiny blood spots. This is a natural part of the healing process. However, if the fresh tat begins producing yellowish-green pus, you definitely have a problem in progress. Additionally, excessive bloody discharge is also one of the more unpleasant infected tattoo symptoms.

Foul Odor

Anaerobic or "bad" bacteria emit a foul smell. If your tattoo begins to smell stinky, it's time to have it looked at by a professional.

Red Streaks

Red streaks that radiate outward from the original tattoo site can be a sign of blood poisoning or sepsis. If you see this, head straight for your healthcare provider's office or the nearest emergency room. Sepsis can be fatal if left untreated.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

Anytime the lymph nodes swell, it's a sign that the immune system has been called into action to attack an intruder. Check for swelling in the nodes closest to the area of your tattoo first.

MRSA Infections From Tattoos

Tattoo skin infections don't just come from bacteria, says a study published in BioMed Research International. However, bacterial infections can be some of the most dangerous. Why? Because certain bacteria have become resistant to several antibiotics. They are known as MRSA or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. These types of bacterial infections in your tattoo can be harder to treat.

MRSA Symptoms

MRSA is a particularly virulent strain of staph that is difficult to treat. It can enter your body via the needle wounds from the tattoo machine. MRSA can produce rashes and boils, as well as deeper skin infections referred to as cellulitis that have the ability to spread rapidly. According to the CDC, MRSA symptoms include pain, swelling, the area being warm to the touch, pus or drainage, and sometimes fever.

More Serious MRSA Complications

MRSA has also been linked to cases of blood infections as well as necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh-eating disease. Many of these symptoms develop extremely fast, so head straight for your local emergency room if they appear. Look for skin that becomes red, warm, or swollen, with severe pain, or fever. More advanced symptoms include ulcers, blisters, black spots, or changes in the color of the skin. It's better to err on the side of caution and let a healthcare professional make an accurate diagnosis.

When to Contact a Healthcare Professional

Infected tattoo symptoms have the potential to progress into life-threatening illnesses. Therefore, if in doubt, seek the advice of a medical professional. Never hesitate to bring any of these symptoms to the attention of your tattoo artist as well as your personal healthcare professional. Don't risk your health or the integrity of your new tattoo.

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Symptoms of an Infected Tattoo