Tattoos seem to be more and more popular especially among young people. Surveys indicate that currently over 20% of people have a tattoo. There are over 20,000 tattoo parlors in the US and the number is increasing. Tattoos and the process of getting a tattoo carry some health risk.
People have been tattooing the skin for thousands of years. A tattoo is made by injecting dye to stain the skin on the top layer. It generally is done with an instrument that has one or more needles that penetrate the surface of the skin and stain is applied. A tattoo is permanent and there is pain and expense when the tattoo is applied. Generally a local anesthetic is not used. The legal age to get a tattoo is 18.
The reasons people get tattoos vary. It may be to commemorate an event or a person. Whatever the reason, it is wise to think carefully, while sober, about where and what will be applied since it can be there for many years. At 18 years old someone may think they know what they want but chances are good that things will change over the 70 or more years that tattoo will be there. A tattoo that is easily visible may affect the ability to be employed and make a negative impression on people that person wants to impress positively.
The health risks are relatively minor but have to be considered. Since the skin is being penetrated and damaged with the application of the tattoo, bacteria can take advantage of the opportunity to cause an infection. It is advisable that people with heart valve disease take an antibiotic for the procedure. The skin generally heals in 1-2 weeks. Contaminated equipment or dyes increase the chance of infection. Another risk is that a person may be allergic to the dye used. Interestingly, I have seen people with multicolored tattoos that will have an allergic reaction to just one of the colors. Also, some tattoos can cause a burn during MRI exam due to metal in the dye. In addition some tattoos can hide skin cancers or at least make them difficult to detect.
There have been cases of hepatitis B and hepatitis C infection related to tattoos. This would generally be due to contaminated equipment. There has never been a confirmed case of HIV infection being transmitted by getting a tattoo.
There are things that can be done to help reduce the chances of having a complication from a tattoo. It is advisable to see a professional tattoo artist at a professional business. Tattoos done by friends and relatives are much more likely to have complications. Do not be afraid to ask about the handling of the instruments used to make sure they have been properly cleaned and sterilized. Make sure that the skin is properly cleansed before the procedure, that the dye that is being used is specifically made for and approved for tattoos, that there are clear instructions for the aftercare of the skin when leaving the establishment, and that the artist is wearing gloves.
I am approached by people who want to have tattoos removed. Removal can be expensive, not covered by insurance, and painful. Some tattoos can be masked by modifying the tattoo, but removal requires either surgery or laser treatment. I am not promoting tattoos, but, if someone decides to have a tattoo careful thought should be given and the risks considered. Risks can be reduced by taking precautions. Stay Healthy my friends.
By: P. Michael Shattuck, M.D. – Community Health Network Family Physician