How To Tell If Your Tattoo Is Infected — & How To Heal It

Photographed by Beth Sacca.
Instagram can provide answers to some of our biggest tattoo questions, like what are the the coolest tattoo trends right now, or which artists should we follow for inspiration? The one question it can't answer: Is my tattoo infected?
Just like piercing infections, a tattoo gone wrong is hard to identify, but there are some red flags to look out for. Is the tattoo tender and swollen? Do you see pus secretions? Are you feeling feverish? If you answered yes to all of the above, you may have an infection.
Before you self-diagnose these symptoms based on a frantic Google search, allow a pro to weigh in. We asked dermatologist Matthew Lin, MD, FAAD, everything we need to know about identifying, treating, and preventing an infected tattoo. Read his advice ahead — but first, call your doctor.

Are tattoo infections common?

According to Dr. Lin, contracting an infection isn't an uncommon scenario. Some published surveys have found that 0.5% to 6% of people with a tattoo have experienced infectious complications. Dr. Lin explains that your chances of infection increase if proper tattooing techniques and protocols aren't followed or used, like sterilized surfaces and equipment, single-use needles, and disposable gloves. Even with the proper precautions, a break in the skin means there is potential for bacteria to creep into what is essentially an open wound and cause an infection.
Photographed by Beth Sacca.
"Most of the time the bacteria causing infection is staphylococcus aureus," Dr. Lin explains. "In rarer cases, the tattoo ink may be contaminated by mycobacteria and can cause an atypical skin infection." If you are tattooed under non-sterile conditions, blood-borne viruses are also possible, such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or HIV.
To be clear, the tattoo artist isn't always to blame: Dr. Lin notes that lazy aftercare routines could disrupt the healing process and cause an infection, too.

What are signs of an infected tattoo?

After getting your tattoo, it's totally normal for the area to be slightly tender and swollen, says Dr. Lin. However, if you notice swelling and pain a few days after, this could indicate an infection. "Persistent bumps, bubbles, or pustules at the site of tattoo may also indicate infection," says Dr. Lin. "Crusting, pus, warmth, fever, and shakes are later symptoms of an infection." If you have any concerns about infection, please consult a medical professional immediately.
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Photographed by Beth Sacca.

How do I treat an infected tattoo?

Dr. Lin recommends first calling your dermatologist for an appointment if you notice any of the aforementioned symptoms. "Your dermatologist will take a swab of the pus and send it to the laboratory for microscopy, culture, and sensitivity," Dr. Lin explains. "This will allow identification of the causative bacteria and guide the appropriate antibiotic therapy." From there, a combination of topical and oral antibiotics is normally prescribed, but this all depends on the severity of the infection. In severe or atypical cases, intravenous antibiotics may be required. Whether you consult a derm or not, make sure to reach out to a medical professional for treatment — don't DIY this remedy at home.

How long does it take an infected tattoo to heal?

It depends. Mild infections can be treated within two weeks, while more severe cases may require several months of antibiotic treatment, says Dr. Lin.

What are some good tattoo aftercare practices to prevent infection?

"It is imperative to keep the tattooed skin clean and moist at all times while the tattoo remains fresh," says Dr. Lin. "The skin should be washed daily with soap and water and then dried with a clean paper towel or air dried." Make sure your hands are clean when touching or washing the tattoo — and avoid washcloths, towels, bath sponges, or loofahs; they likely carry bacteria. Once the tattoo is dry, apply a thin layer of ointment to the area. After you're a few days into the healing process, swap out the heavier ointment for a fragrance-free lotion and apply it at least twice a day. Dr. Lin adds that you should never touch your new tattoo without washing your hands first, don't pick or peel the scabs, and generally, just leave well enough alone.
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