No longer taboos, tattoos are more popular than ever before and normally safe. But along with getting inked comes the risk of getting seriously sick, warns the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The problem is that contaminated tattoo ink can cause serious infections, like the potentially deadly MRSA. Even tattoo artists who meticulously follow proper hygienic practices may not know they are using contaminated inks.
"When getting a tattoo or piercing, the bacteria can be passed from the artist to the client, from a tool to the client, or even from the client to themselves," warns About Guide to Tattoo and Body Piercing Jodie Michalak in MRSA and Tattoos - What are the Risks?
Specifically, the FDA is investigating an outbreak of cases of nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM) bacterial infections linked to contaminated tattoo inks.
According to the FDA, certain strains of the NTM bacteria can cause lung disease, joint infection, eye problems and other organ infections. The infections can be difficult to diagnose and can require treatment lasting six months or more.
An investigation conducted by the FDA and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has revealed cases of serious infections from contaminated tattoo ink in the states of New York, Washington, Iowa, and Colorado.
Tattoo ink, advises the FDA, can become contaminated by various unhygienic practices on the part of both tattoo artists and tattoo ink manufactures. The most common unhygienic practices noted in tattoo parlors include the use of non-sterile water to dilute the inks, and continued use tattoo inks after their expiration date.
What You Should Know: The FDA warns that the ointments they might be given by the tattoo parlor are not effective against NTM infections. Since NTM infections are often mistaken for allergic reactions, they may be misdiagnosed and incorrectly treated.
What You Should Do: Go to the doctor if you notice a red rash with swelling, possibly accompanied by itching or pain in the tattooed area, usually appearing 2-3 weeks after getting the tattoo.
Most importantly, report the problem to the tattoo artist, who may not even be aware he or she is using contaminated inks.
"Reporting an infection to FDA and the artist is important. Once the problem is reported, FDA can investigate, and the artist can take steps to prevent others from being infected," said epidemiologist Katherine Hollinger of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors in a press release.