FDA Warns About Health Risks of Tattoos

Tattoos are so common that it is easy to forget that there are always potential dangers whenever anything–including ink–is injected into the skin or body. It used to be that the greatest health risk came from improper sterilization of the equipment. But now, another risk has been identified:  Contaminated tattoo inks.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is particularly concerned about a family of bacteria called nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM) that has been found in a recent outbreak of illnesses linked to contaminated tattoo inks.

One disease-causing species of NTM, M. chelonae,  can cause lung disease, joint infections, eye problems, and other organ infections. These infections can be difficult to diagnose and can require treatment lasting six months or longer.

The FDA is reaching out to tattoo artists, ink and pigment manufacturers, public health officials, health care professionals, and consumers to warn them of the potential for infection. Getting the word out to tattoo artists is particularly critical, because even when they diligently follow hygienic practices, they may not know that an ink itself may be contaminated. It’s not always possible to see that an ink may be contaminated.

The FDA also warns that tattoo inks–and the pigments used to color them–can become contaminated by more than NTM. Contamination can happen when other bacteria, mold, or fungi find their way into the ink.

Inks and pigments can be contaminated through:

  • use of contaminated ingredients to make inks;
  • use of manufacturing processes that introduce contaminants or allow contaminants to survive;
  • use of unhygienic practices that contaminate ink bottles or mixing with contaminated colors;
  • use of non-sterile water to dilute the inks;
  • using tattoo inks past their expiration date.

What To Do

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, and 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.

Consumers should know that the ointments often provided by tattoo parlors are not effective against these infections. NTM infections may look similar to allergic reactions, which means they might be easily misdiagnosed and treated ineffectively.

Once an infection is diagnosed, health care providers will prescribe appropriate antibiotic treatment. Such treatment might have uncomfortable side effects, such as nausea or gastrointestinal problems. However, 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, FDA recommends the following:

  • Contact your health care professional if you see a red rash with swelling, possibly accompanied by itching or pain in the tattooed area, usually appearing 2-3 weeks after tattooing.
  • Report the problem to the tattoo artist.
  • Report the problem to MedWatch at 1-800-332-1088; or contact FDA’s consumer complaint coordinator in your area.
  • Contact an attorney, such as HensonFuerst, if you believe that your injury or infect was due to negligence on the part of the tattoo artist. We are available 24/7 at 1-800-4-LAWMED. (You can also fill out a consultation form on our website at www.hensonfuerst.com.)

For more information

Read the original article in The New England Journal of Medicine here:  Tattoo Ink: Awareness, Diagnosis, Reporting, and Prevention

Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Tattoo-Associated Nontuberculous Mycobacterial Skin Infections


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