Tattoo inks and the pigments used to color them can become contaminated by bacteria, mold, and fungi. In the last year, inks contaminated with a family of bacteria called nontuberculous Mycobacteria have caused serious infections in at least four states. Some bacteria in this family can cause lung disease, joint infection, eye problems and other organ infections. The skin ointments provided by tattoo parlors are not effective against them.
Typical symptoms appear 2-3 weeks after tattooing: a red rash with swelling in the tattooed area, possibly accompanied by itching or pain. It often just looks like an allergic reaction, but without prompt and proper treatment, an infection could spread beyond the tattoo or become complicated by a secondary infection.
If you suspect you may have a tattoo-related infection, the Food and Drug Administration recommends you:
- Contact your health care professional
- Report the problem to the tattoo artist
- Report the problem to MedWatch, on the Web or at 1-800-332-1088
Tattoo artists can minimize the risk of infection by using inks that have been formulated or processed to ensure they are free from disease-causing bacteria, while also avoiding the use of non-sterile water to dilute the inks or wash the skin. Non-sterile water includes tap, bottled, filtered or distilled water.