New Tattoo Infection Spreads: Are You at Risk?

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Since last year, 19 people in at least four states have contracted a nasty bacterial infection after getting tattoos. Here's how to tell if you or someone you know has it – and how to avoid it in the future.

Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration – which regulates tattoo ink – issued a warning for tattoo artists, the recently inked, and anyone considering a tattoo: Watch out for Mycobacterium chelonae.

Following an outbreak that infected 19 people in at least four states, federal investigators have traced the source back to contaminated tattoo ink.

This breed of environmental bacterium isn’t contagious but can spread quickly and be difficult to treat, often requiring six months to a year of antibiotics. It can cause lung disease, joint infection, eye problems, and other organ infections.

The infected tattoo clients got inked in New York, Washington, Iowa, and Colorado and contracted a strain of the bacteria in late 2011 and early 2012, one artist having tattooed many of them.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the source was a gray wash, a diluted black ink used to shade tattoos to give them a 3D appearance. Specifically, a new, hand-blended type of gray wash that contained pigment, distilled water, witch hazel, and glycerin.

An infected tattoo (FDA.gov)

If you think you might be infected…

  • What to look for: This infection usually appears within two to three weeks of receiving a tattoo and looks like a red rash with swelling. It may also be itchy or painful and is often mistaken for an allergic reaction.
  • See a doctor ASAP. The infection can spread if not treated promptly.
  • Report the infection to the FDA’s MedWatch program (which you can do online) and to the tattoo artist.

How to protect yourself in the future…

  • Make sure the artist uses inks formulated or processed to ensure they are free from disease-causing bacteria.
  • Make sure the artist avoids using non-sterile water – including tap, bottled, filtered, and distilled water – to dilute the inks or wash the skin.
  • Realize that the ointments often used by artists do not protect against bacteria.

Stacy Johnson

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