Anyone who’s ever said that tattoos are best left to sailors and punks has clearly never known what it’s like to take care of fresh ink. Once the tattoo gun has been put away, what you’re left with is essentially an open wound that requires weeks (depending on the size and detail of the artwork) of proper cleansing and moisturizing before it fully heals. You need to have some sense of responsibility — after you leave the shop, nobody else is going to put on that Aquaphor three times a day but you.
Aftercare is essential because, as with any other wound, the last thing you want is to expose the area to possible infection. That’s why tattoo artists warn against swimming for about two weeks following the procedure — oceans, lakes, rivers, and even pools are crawling with bacteria, amoebas, viruses, and all kinds of stuff you don’t want in your bloodstream. Best case scenario, you get a mild infection and have to go on antibiotics; worst case scenario, you develop sepsis, a life-threatening condition that arises when infection-fighting chemicals in the bloodstream cause an attack on the body’s own organs. It’s exactly as bad as it sounds.
Let one unidentified man’s tragic story serve as a cautionary tale: The Daily Mail reports that a 31-year-old developed sepsis after swimming in the Gulf of Mexico just five days after getting a tattoo of a cross on his leg. The man went to the hospital after suffering a worsening fever, chills, and a rash near the wound, and was later diagnosed with Vibrio vulnificus, a strain of flesh-eating bacteria found in seawater and raw oysters that kills about 60% of people who catch it. Despite aggressive antibiotic treatment, he died after two months in intensive care.
Because of a preexisting liver disease, the patient was at particular risk for a V. vulnificus infection, and a high mortality rate by association, the original story in BMJ Case Reports explained, but it can also occur in healthy individuals when an open wound, like a tattoo, is exposed to contaminated seawater.
Tattoo artists aren’t just trying to keep you from having some fun in the sun when they tell you to stay out of the pool for the time being — it’s a safety precaution against putting your own life at risk. Side effects this severe are very, very rare, but it’s a scary reminder that some rules are not meant to be broken, and going for a swim definitely isn't worth losing a limb or your life. The Gulf of Mexico isn't going anywhere. (And, unfortunately, neither are the oil spills.)