The woman went to the doctor with two two-week-old lumps underneath her arms, which the doctors determined were swollen lymph nodes. They thought the swelling was a symptom of lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the immune system. But it turned out it was actually her immune system's reaction to the pigment of a tattoo she got 15 years prior, according to a case study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The old ink had caused inflammation in the nodes.
As if this story isn't horrifying enough, there were swollen lymph nodes in the woman's chest as well. The immune cells had ingested the tattoo ink and carried it with them as they traveled to the lymph nodes. "The pigment is too large for these cells to eat and digest," Dr. Bill Stebbins, director of cosmetic dermatology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told CNN. "That's why they're still there many years later."
Dr. Christian Bryant, a hematologist at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney and a doctor who treated this woman, told CNN he hasn't seen a case of tattoo ink causing enlarged lymph nodes before. Fortunately, he added, the swelling has gone down, and it looks like she's going to be fine.
While this reaction may be extremely rare, other tattoo-related problems are more common. Between 2014 and 2016, the FDA received 363 reports from people whose tattoos caused negative reactions. Moldy ink, dirty needles, and ink with dangerous ingredients can cause infections. Some people also have allergies to tattoo ink ingredients.
While it's not clear what caused the Australian woman's flare-up, we do know that going to the most reputable tattoo parlor you can find, informing the tattoo artist of any allergies you have, and making sure they're cleaning everything properly can help you avoid any ink-related mishaps.