The Signs of an Infected Tattoo and How to Care for It
Is What You're Experiencing Normal?
In general, it's normal to have swelling and redness around your tattoo for about 48 hours after you first get it done. However, the pain, inflammation, and redness should get better with time, not worse.
How much pain and swelling you have depends on where the tattoo is and how big it is. Bigger tattoos, in general, will be more painful and have more swelling.
Check through the chart below to see if your symptoms are normal or the sign of a problem. In this article, you'll also find information on how to take care of your new tattoo, why it might have gotten infected, and what to do next.
Note: If you have red lines coming from your tattoo or a high fever, see a doctor immediately.
Quick Reference: Infection Symptoms
What to Do
Spreading or increasing redness
Redness is normal right after getting a tattoo, but if it's increasing after 2-3 days, it could be a sign of a problem.
If it continues to increase after 2 days, have a tattoo artist check it out.
Increasing swelling (especially if it's uneven)
Similar to the above, swelling is normal right after getting a tattoo. Increasing swelling indicates trouble.
Ibuprofen, elevating the tattoo, and icing it can help reduce inflammation. If swelling increases after 2-3 days, have an artist check it out.
Heat coming off of the tattoo
Some heat is normal right after you get a tattoo. If it's increasing, it could be a problem.
Have your artist check it out after 2-3 days.
Off-white, brown, or greenish yellow discharge
This is pus.
Likely an infection. See your tattoo artist.
Clear, clear yellow, or white discharge
This is normal in healing tattoos.
Follow normal aftercare procedures.
Sure sign of infection.
See a doctor.
Pustules, boils, or blisters
Likely sign of infection.
See your tattoo artist or a doctor.
Increasing pain or tenderness
Pain should decrease, not increase, in the days after you get a tattoo.
See an artist, unless you're in a lot of pain, then go straight to the doctor.
Swollen lymph nodes
Indicates infection, unless they're caused by another illness.
If experienced with other of these symptoms, see your artist or a doctor.
Definitely an infection.
Seek treatment immediately.
Fever or muscle aches
If not related to another illness, a definite sign of infection.
See a doctor.
Increasing scab size and scabs that turn green or yellow
Usually caused by increased discharge.
Possible sign of infection. See tattoo artist.
Not a good indicator of infection.
Follow normal aftercare instructions, unless accompanied by another symptom.
Could be allergic reaction, though not a good indicator of infection unless it spreads and gets worse after a week.
If it doesn't go away, see tattoo artist.
Not a good indicator of infection, though could indicate allergic reaction.
Follow normal aftercare instructions, unless accompanied by another symptom. If persistent, see your artist.
Aftercare for Your Tattoo
There are many different methods for caring for a new tattoo. In general, however, they follow some basic guidelines.
- Your tattoo is an open wound. Do everything possible to keep it from touching anything that might contaminate it.
- Always wash your hands before cleaning your tattoo.
- No more than a few hours after you get your tattoo, remove the bandage and gently wash it with unscented anti-bacterial hand soap. Use lukewarm water and your hand to clean it. Do not scrub. Gently remove all ointment, blood, and any other residue.
- After washing and letting it air dry or pat it with a non-fluffy cloth, apply an ointment. Bacitracin, A+D Ointment, and Aquaphor are all recommended. Do not use vaseline or petroleum jelly. Only use a tiny amount, enough to leave a very thin, almost nonexistent layer. Too much ointment can keep the tattoo from healing. It should have a light sheen after you rub it in. Use the ointment for 3–5 days.
- Wash your tattoo two to three times a day, and always wash your hands before you do it!
- Between the third and fifth day, your tattoo will have formed a hard, thin layer, and it will begin to peel (like a sunburn). This is normal.
- At this point, switch from ointment to a non-scented hand lotion to keep the skin moisturized. Don't pick at the tattoo or at the scabs! Let them come off on their own. Don't apply too much lotion, either—just enough to rub into the skin.
- The majority of your healing should be over the course of two weeks, though your tattoo could take up to four weeks to heal.
- Don't sleep on your tattoo.
- Don't submerge it in water of any kind.
- Don't irritate it with tight clothing.
- Don't expose it to sunlight.
- Don't overwork the area. Lay off the gym for a bit while your tattoo heals, especially if you'll be moving your tattoo around a lot.
- Do not pick, scratch, itch, or touch it at all.
- The instructions your artist gives you override everything else.
Other Health Concerns and How to Avoid Them
When getting a new tattoo, whether it be your first, fifth, or fifteenth, you should be aware of potential health concerns. In addition to the risk of having a tattoo become infected, you can potentially contract gangrene, syphilis, TB, hepatitis B and C, and HIV from infected needles and instruments.
Choose the Right Shop
When getting a tattoo, it is important that your tattoo artist use new, sterile needles and clean instruments for each client. Everything that comes into contact with human skin, blood, and fluids needs to be properly sterilized.
Even if you don't see blood on the needles or instruments, it doesn't mean that you can't contract a disease or infection from them. Your artist should make it clear that the needles they are using are completely sterile.
Also, be sure to tell your artist about any allergies that you have (especially latex or nickel), so you can prevent having an allergic reaction. If you don't know if you're allergic to nickel or latex, test yourself.
Assuming you've already checked out your tattoo artist and the tattoo shop, the next thing you can do to prevent an infection is by carrying out proper aftercare.
How to Tell If Your Tattoo Is Infected
Why'd My Tattoo Get Infected?
The most common reason for a tattoo getting infected is not following aftercare instructions. It's also possible that the artist or the artists' equipment somehow contaminated your tattoo.
Here are some other common causes:
- Contamination from clothing
- Bacteria or harsh chemicals
- Weakened immune system
- Presence of other illnesses or diseases
Tattoo Infection Care (and When to See a Doctor)
If you think that you may have an infection in or around your new tattoo, you should consult your tattoo artist before it leads to more serious problems and complications. If you're positive it's an infection, go to a dermatologist. A doctor can properly diagnose an infection for you and, depending on the severity, may prescribe treatments besides the topical ointment.
Generally, a topical cream-based antibiotic will help heal the infection. You should never use an ointment because you can clog your skin and further worsen the infection. However, only use a topical ointment if you know for a fact your tattoo is infected.
Remember to keep the tattoo dry. Do not swim or bathe with an infected tattoo because you can potentially worsen the infection.
Follow Your Artist or Doctor's Instructions
Confirm your suspicions with your tattoo artist or doctor and follow their instructions. Here's what they might tell you that you need to do:
- Wash the tattoo with non-scented soap and clean water and let it air dry. Don't cover it up unless you need to.
- Let the tattoo dry out. Do not use ointment of any kind. Bandage it with clean gauze only if you must do so to keep it from getting more contaminated.
- If bandaging, use sterile gauze and a light coating of topical cream. Change the bandage several times a day to keep it clean. Make sure the bandage is non-stick, so you don't rip the skin when you take it off.
- Your doctor might prescribe you oral antibiotics or nothing at all.
More Information About Infections
The infection may present at the surface of the tattoo or underneath the skin, deep within the wound. If the infection deeper, you'll experience fewer of these symptoms, except intense pain and possible swelling.
Since the infection can occur deep within the wound, you want to make sure the tattoo doesn't heal on top of it. If it does, you may experience more serious complications such as an abscess. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the bones, joints, and elsewhere in the body.
If you have other diseases or health concerns, you may be at an increased risk for infection, even if you do take proper care of your new tattoo. If you have diabetes, peripheral arterial disease, or an impaired immune system, you should consult a doctor immediately at the first signs of a problem since you are at greater risk for infection and complications.
Remember that you can decrease the risk of infection by following proper aftercare for cleaning and caring for a new tattoo.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2009 Whitney