After this highly unusual death, we look at the risks involved in getting a tattoo
When you think about how you’ll probably end up departing this world, you probably don’t imagine your epitaph saying: ‘He died from an infection after getting a new tattoo’. Well, it would be unusual. But not unheard of. That is exactly what happened to a 31-year-old man in the Gulf of Mexico. His story warns us of the risks posed by an unhealed tattoo.
After getting a cross, praying hands, and the words ‘Jesus is my life’ tattooed on his calf, the man went for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico and contracted Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that typically lurks in seawater and raw shellfish. That led to septic shock (an infection in the blood) and cellulitis, a particularly aggressive bacterial infection of the skin. Despite efforts by doctors in a nearby hospital to treat him with high-powered antibiotics, the man died two days later.
The journal BMJ Case Reports which first reported the case noted that the victim did have special circumstances, putting him at greater risk. The man had chronic liver disease, which made him more susceptible to V. vulnificus. In fact, health guidelines recommend that people with this condition should avoid swimming in the sea if they have an open wound.
The future of your health and your tattoo depends on how well you look after it.
‘This is an isolated case. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t take a tattoo too lightly either. In reality, an infection of this magnitude can occur if you expose any type of wound to dirty or contaminated water. It’s not just a problem for tattoos, which are, after all, basically superficial wounds,’ says tattoo artist Letizia Ruggirello.
A new tattoo is an open wound. Like any other wound, a tattoo needs a few weeks to heal completely. Even for healthy people, a recent tattoo can be an entry point into the body for bacteria and other microbes which could trigger serious infections.
Fresh ink can also put a person at risk of staphylococcal infections, as well as diseases linked to needles and blood, such as tetanus, Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C. Tattoos have also occasionally been linked to ink and dye allergies.
So how do we avoid these pitfalls?
‘In my experience, people who decide to get tattooed usually take the trouble to educate themselves about it beforehand. Most people know someone who has a tattoo and is familiar with the process. These days, thanks to the internet, the information is at everyone’s fingertips. It’s easy to learn about the best way to care for a fresh tattoo,’ adds Letizia Ruggirello.
‘Professional tattoo artists sterilise their tools as if they were surgical instruments, use fresh disposable materials for each customer, and take hygiene very seriously. We also explain very clearly how the customer should keep the area clean afterwards. It’s then down to the customer to follow the tattooist’s instructions and care for their tattoo responsibly.’
If you want your tattoo to look good, be patient and take the tattooist’s instructions seriously.
The first thing you must do is keep the bandage on for at least 24 hours, removing it periodically to apply healing ointment. You should also keep the area hydrated and refrain from rubbing it after washing. Some tattooists say you shouldn’t bathe in the sea or swimming pools for a few days, to avoid the risk of potential infection.
‘If something goes wrong it’s because the healing process has not been managed correctly. If you want your tattoo to look good, be patient and take the tattooist’s instructions seriously. The future of your health, and of your tattoo, depends on how well you look after it.’