Behavior & Development • Jun 08, 2015

Teens and Tattoos: 7 medical risks to talk about before you get inked

Thirty-six percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have tattoos, according to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, and the desire to get inked seems to be rising. Just look around at the pool and you’ll see the body-art show. Before you get a tattoo, here are 7 real but uncommon medical risks worth thinking about:

  1. The tattoo risk people don’t talk about is regret. There is big industry in tattoo removal and removal, which itself has medical risks including scarring and infection. Ten percent of people with tattoos say they don’t even like tattoos, according to a 2014 poll. My colleague Aisha Sultan explains tattoo regret well: “Regret is a very real risk and may not even kick in until years later, when skin might not be as taut and when ink has started to fade. Just like an 18 year old’s clothes may not look great on a 50 year old woman, you may feel the same way about a tattoo you loved as a teenager. Consider taking a few months to think about a tattoo rather than just running out and getting it– you’ll feel better that you made a solid decision.
  2. Skin infections: It’s normal for a tattoo to take two to three weeks to heal. Expect a fresh tattoo to have mild redness and swelling. Tattoos can become infected with common bacteria, staph and strep, including the antibiotic resistant MRSA bacteria. The CDC has reported clusters of MRSA infected tattoos associated with unlicensed tattoo parlors.  Rarely, you can contract other types of skin infection in a tattoo such as herpes and viral warts. If the swollen area starts to weep pus, if you have a fever, or if there are streaking red marks on your body, you need to seek medical care.
  3. Scarring, keloids, granulomas: Some people have skin that just doesn’t heal well, leaving bumpy scars that distort tattoos. Keloids are big, puffy scars that forms at sites of skin injury such as piercings, lacerations, and tattoos. If you’ve had trouble with keloids after piercings, think twice about a tattoo. People who get keloids usually get them again. A granuloma is a type of hard, bumpy swelling that is really a form of inflammation as your body’s immune system fights the tattoo ink. It may take months to years for keloids and granulomas to form around tattoos.  Granulomas and keloids are hard to treat and can cause permanent disfigurement.
  4. Allergic reactions to ink: The metals in the ink can trigger an inflammatory response– your own immune system trying to reject the ink.  Allergic reactions to tattoo ink can occur years after getting the tattoo. If you tend to get eczema you may end up with an eczema-like reaction at the site of your tattoo.
  5. Blood borne infections such as tetanus and hepatitis: More people contract hepatitis B and C from their dentist than from tattoo parlors, and your overall risk of any blood borne infection is very low, but still real. You can also get tetanus from a tattoo if your immunizations aren’t up to date, so be sure to get your tetanus booster shot before your tattoo.
  6. MRI complications: It is true that tattoos can cause complications with MRIs, specifically burning at the site of the tattoo. Occasionally, a tattoo can interfere with MRI image quality, especially if it is a large tattoo and/or uses red ink.  A tattoo is not a contraindication for an MRI, though, so if you need and MRI don’t hesitate because of your tattoo.
  7. Epidural anesthesia complications: Lower back tattoos do pose a small risk for epidural anesthesia during labor or surgery. There is a small risk that some dye can get caught in the needle used for the epidural. The doctor might nick the tattoo first with a scalpel and then insert the epidural needle through the nick. This reduces the risk of getting pigment in the needle. This can, however, result in scarring.

Ready to pierce?  Here are the medical complications of cartilage and ear piercing.