Inked or infected: Tattooing comes with risks
There was a time not long ago when those sporting multiple tattoos were thought to be sociopaths. I’m talking about bikers, gang bangers, and prisoners — you know the type — freaks, like Lisbeth, in “The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo”.
Let’s fast forward to today. Body piercing and tattooing has become more and more popular among teens and young adults; they’re easy to get and quick and some are quite beautiful. Even minors can even get them with parental consent. It is estimated that 36% of Americans under 30 have skin designs.
While sharing needles during illegal drug use is the biggest risk factor for contracting hepatitis C, there are increasing numbers of cases caused by some very common activities including tattooing, piercings, manicures and pedicures.
But don’t let peer pressure and the ease of getting one stop you (and your parents) from carefully considering the risks, like infection.
Tattoo seekers should realize that we’re dealing with needles and blood here! Never mind injecting dangerous unregulated dyes, which may cause cancer, under your skin.
We’re also talking about viral infections spread by contaminated blood; viruses like hepatitis C and human papillomavirus (HPV, also known as genital warts). Point of fact, hepatitis C causes more American deaths than HPV.
The problem with being infected with hepatitis C is that most people don’t have early (acute) symptoms of disease and don’t even know they have the virus until it destroys their liver (chronic disease). If you have acute symptoms, they might include fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, dark urine, jaundice, joint pain, and fever.
Approximately 3.2 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C of whom 75 to 85 percent will have chronic infections. Infection with hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants in America and contrary to hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
While sharing needles during illegal drug use is the biggest risk factor for contracting hepatitis C, there are increasing numbers of cases caused by some very common activities including tattooing, piercings, manicures and pedicures. In fact, it is estimated that tattooing in an unprofessional or unsterilized environment may increase your risk of hepatitis C infection 2-to-3-fold.
However, there’s no need to panic. With proper precautions, these risks can be avoided. And, if you think you may have been infected you can be tested and treated.
To mitigate the risk of infection, be sure you go to a licensed tattoo parlor (a license should be prominently displayed). Do not let your friends tattoo you!
Since tattoo and body piercing instruments come in contact with blood and bodily fluids, infection is possible if instruments are used on more than one person without being sterilized or without proper hygiene. Professionals are required by law to have sterile instruments. I doubt your friends have an autoclave to sterilize instruments. Also, ask if the tattoo dyes have been kept in sterile containers — it is not required and could also be a source of infections.
Even if your tattoo parlor is licensed it's better to be safe than sorry. Here are some things you can check for yourself to be certain your tattoo parlor is safe.
- Treat a tattoo as you would any other medical procedure. You want a tattoo parlor to be at least as clean as your doctor’s office.
- Ask to see the tools the artist will use. The needles should be new, sterilized, and wrapped — no exceptions. The ink should be in small pots meant for single-use and anything that touches your skin should not be reused. And the artist should wear gloves.
- Make sure the work area is free of any possible contamination from items like purses and cell phones.
Tattoos can be beautiful, artistic expressions of our inner selves. Just be sure you know the risks and go to a professional tattoo artist.
Editor's clarification: An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that tattooing increases the risk for hepatitis C by two to three times. That risk is true only if tattooing occurs in an unprofessional and unsterilized environment.