Infected Tattoo: Everything You Need to Know

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A tattoo infection occurs when a person gets a tattoo and it becomes infected due to small wounds on the skin. Although proper sterilization and care can reduce the risk of tattoo infection, it still can occur. Tattoo infections can be mild, but if left untreated, they can be dangerous and lead to serious health consequences.

This article discusses the signs, causes, and stages of tattoo infection and what you can do to prevent or treat it.

tattoo artist performing back tattoo

Marco Piunti / Getty Images

Signs of an Infection

Post-application swelling, pain, and redness in the tattooed area are completely normal. However, if an infection occurs, other symptoms can present, including:

  • Pus coming from the area
  • Shallow ulcers or a scaly rash on the skin
  • Raised bumps on the skin that can present with or without pus
  • Excessive redness or warmth around the tattoo site
  • Pain or swelling that worsens in the area
  • Painful, hot skin that drains a gray liquid, which can be a sign of tissue death in the area

The aforementioned signs will occur at or around the site of the tattoo, but other signs of infection can arise, including:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sweats
  • Shaking

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Mild skin irritation is normal with tattoos. However, if you experience any of the above symptoms, you should contact your healthcare provider immediately. Infections can continue to worsen and cause severe health complications if left untreated.

Tattoo Infection Causes

A tattoo infection can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or another pathogen that gets into the small wounds made by a tattoo gun. There are several ways that this can happen, including:

  • Contaminated needles or ink
  • Not cleaning the wound properly after you get the tattoo
  • Poor hygienic practices at the tattoo parlor

Contaminated Ink and Tattoo Infections

According to research, tattoo ink remains one of the major causes of tattoo infections. Roughly 10% of new tattoo inks contain some sort of bacteria or pathogen that can cause a tattoo infection.

Tattoo Infection Stages

When an infection develops after a tattoo, it goes through various stages. While these stages aren’t medically defined, they can help you get a better sense of how the infection will progress over time.

The stages associated with skin infections after a tattoo include:

  • Stage 1: A dull pain and tenderness in the area develops.
  • Stage 2: Swelling, warmth, and redness occurs.
  • Stage 3: The initial symptoms worsen, and redness expands over the span of hours or even days.
  • Stage 4: Small papules or bumps begin to form and, in some cases, break open, releasing pus.
  • Stage 5: Ulcers and other skin lesions begin to appear and, in some cases, tissue death can occur.
  • Stage 6: Fever, chills, sweats, and shaking begin, because the infection has made its way inside the body.

Complications of a Tattoo Infection

If the infection goes untreated, several serious and even life-threatening complications can occur, such as:

  • A fatal increase in pressure in the abdomen, known as abdominal compartment syndrome
  • An infection of the blood
  • Inflammation of the inner lining of the valves and chambers in the heart
  • A collection of pus in the muscle that moves the hip joint
  • Lung tissue death
  • Toxic shock syndrome, which occurs when bacterial infections of the blood spread toxins to organs
  • Septic shock, which is dangerously low blood pressure caused by the body’s extreme reaction to a present infection

Treatment

To treat a tattoo infection, a healthcare provider must first know what type of pathogen is causing it. In the event that bacteria is causing the infection, antibiotics will be prescribed.

The duration and strength of the antibiotic will highly depend on how far along the infection is and where it is infecting the body. Antibiotics used include:

  • Oral antibiotics
  • Intravenous antibiotics, which are administered through a vein in the arm
  • Hydrophilic antibiotics, which are given in high doses for a severe infection

In some cases, viral infections that a person acquired through tattoos cannot be cured.

Some examples of possible viral infections that can be contracted via tattooing include:

These viral infections cannot be cured, but they can be managed with medications. Treatment will vary.

Prevention

Preventing a tattoo infection requires a person to not only practice good aftercare, but also to choose the right parlor. If you are looking to get a tattoo and want to avoid infection, look for a licensed tattoo artist and a well-reviewed parlor.

Getting to know the tattoo artist and visiting the tattoo parlor prior to getting the tattoo is a good way to determine whether they are practicing safe tattooing.

That said, even the cleanest and most hygienic tattoo parlors can have unopened ink that contains bacteria or other pathogens. Roughly 10% of new inks will contain bacteria, which is out of the control of the tattoo parlor and artists.

Because of this, proper aftercare is the best way to protect yourself against infection. Proper aftercare involves:

  • Always washing your hands prior to touching the tattoo to avoid any transfer of bacteria or other pathogens
  • Removing the bandage one to two hours after getting the tattoo
  • Using a liquid antibacterial soap to wash the tattoo
  • Using paper towels to gently dry the tattoo after washing
  • Moisturizing the area with a small amount of scent-free moisturizer one to three times per day for at least two weeks
  • Wrapping the tattoo in plastic wrap the first night while sleeping
  • Avoiding rough or irritating clothing for the first two weeks following the tattoo

What to Avoid to Prevent Infection

To make sure that your skin heals properly and you don’t get an infection, you should avoid:

  • Picking or scratching the tattoo
  • Swimming or sitting in water for at least two weeks
  • Sun exposure for at least three weeks
  • Abrasive clothing or other materials that could further irritate the tattooed area
  • Letting anyone touch the tattoo without first washing their hands

Summary

All tattoos come with a risk of infection because they are open wounds. If an infection does occur, it will present with symptoms such as swelling, redness, pain, ulcers or a rash, and possibly fever or chills. If you notice any signs of infection, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Your provider can examine the area, diagnose the infection, and prescribe treatment, most likely antibiotics.

If a tattoo infection is left untreated, it can lead to life-threatening health conditions, such as septic shock and toxic shock syndrome. To prevent a tattoo infection, you should always go to a reputable artist with a clean parlor and follow all of the after-care instructions carefully.

A Word From Verywell 

Tattoos are a popular form of body art, and millions of people have chosen them as a unique form of self-expression. While the only way to completely avoid a tattoo infection is to abstain from getting a tattoo, that’s not a desirable option for many people who enjoy the process and the outcome of their tattoos. Find a tattoo artist you can trust, and take proper care of the tattooed area.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long after getting a tattoo do infections typically occur?

    Because tattoos are open wounds, and every person heals differently, it can be hard to determine a set time when infection would occur. Typically speaking, tattoos can get infected anywhere from a few days to a couple of months after they are finished. This is because healing times vary, and, as long as there is still skin to heal, infection is possible.

  • Will an infection ruin my new tattoo?

    A mild infection that is caught and treated early likely won’t ruin the tattoo, but the longer it's left untreated, the more risk you run of visual changes to the tattoo. This is because the skin infection can cause ulcers and other skin symptoms that can leave scarring in the area that compromises the visual integrity of the tattoo.

  • Will an infected tattoo heal on its own?

    An infected tattoo will never heal on its own. In fact, if they are left alone, they will spread and could even cause other health issues, some of which are fatal. This is why treatment is so important.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Serup J. Tattoo infections, personal resistance, and contagious exposure through tattooing. Curr Probl Dermatol. 2017;52:30-41. doi:10.1159/000450777

  3. UpToDate. Patient education: skin and soft tissue infection (cellulitis) (beyond the basics).

  4. Serup J. Medical treatment of tattoo complications. Curr Probl Dermatol. 2017;52:74-81. doi:10.1159/000450804

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By Angelica Bottaro
Angelica Bottaro is a professional freelance writer with over 5 years of experience. She has been educated in both psychology and journalism, and her dual education has given her the research and writing skills needed to deliver sound and engaging content in the health space.