Advice and Aftercare

Recognising and dealing with a potential tattoo infection

Yummy title, eh?

Well maybe this isn’t going to be the most sexy of articles, but bear with me. Reading this might just mean the difference between a kick-ass tattoo and something you’d rather never look at again.

A few months ago, I went to get a very small tattoo, which had an important meaning to me – the word ‘Soho’ to mark a special place in my heart for this area of London’s West End.

Now, tattoos can get infected for a variety of different reasons. For some unlucky people, it’s choosing to go to a tattoo studio that doesn’t follow the correct hygiene procedures or tattooing methods. Always research your studio first. We all know that.

When you tell people you’re suffering from a possible tattoo infection, their first reaction is to think you’ve been to a dodgy studio and picked up something nasty due to someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. But that just isn’t always the case.

My tattoo was done at one of the most popular, trustworthy and licensed studios in London, and all the correct measures were taken to avoid infection – single-use needles, clean equipment, protective gloves and an experienced artist with a brilliant reputation. I trust the studio 100% and would trust the artists with any of my limbs, any day!

So how did it happen? It just happened. It only takes a tiny bit of something sinister to make its way into your tattoo during the healing process and you’re in for a fun time. That’s why aftercare is so important.

Was it riding my bike the next day? My dirty trainers? Something off a towel at home? My jeans rubbing? I can’t analyse how it happened, we’d be here forever, but I can let you know what to do if this happens to you.

This was the first time I had experienced an infected tattoo. I asked my loyal mate the worldwide web, who told me it could potentially kill me. If, like me, this is your first time reading this, you may well freak out.

So let’s just hold it there for just a second. Now, blood poisoning can be fatal, yes, as can HIV and other blood borne diseases that can be passed through infected needles. Whilst researching, I just kept coming across variations of the sentence ‘your tattoo can kill you’. But what are the facts?

If you’re like me, if you’ve been to a trustworthy, licensed studio you know well, if your artist use single-use needles and professionally sterilized equipment, if you think it’s unlikely that your blood has been in contact with a blood-borne disease, if you think you’re infection looks rather small and mild… you’re probably not going to die!

The size of the tattoo and how well you know the studio has a lot to say about how much you should freak out in this situation. There’s a difference between a full sleeve infection done by someone you don’t trust, and a coin sized tattoo infection that’s come from a studio that you know is cool.

For me, my small tattoo was done by someone I trusted, which meant that I felt confident in my body to fight this minor infection alone. I knew the cause must have been something I had picked up in the aftercare process, and therefore I could probably rule out any serious diseases.

Here are some pointers for you to follow if you think you’re finding yourself in a similar sticky situation with a relatively small tattoo.

Soho Tattoo Inkluded Tattoo Blog Soho Tattoo Inkluded Tattoo Blog

Spotting Something Wrong
[Pictured: Day 1 & Day 3]

Luckily I managed to spot the signs of an infection early on. I noticed something was up at day 3 – by this point, you shouldn’t be experiencing too much pain or inflammation. Your tattoo should have calmed down and will feel like it’s on the mend. This wasn’t the case for me. Some of the things I spotted were:

  • A red bruised effect around the black outline
  • Parts of the tattoo (in my case, the black parts) were forming a raised thick scab
  • The scab was oozing a clear yellow liquid
  • It felt quite tender around the tattoo
  • It didn’t smell great
  • It was slightly swollen and felt a bit hot

First Things First

Firstly, if you think you have an infection, go and talk to your tattoo artist. Whilst it’s not their fault, a good artist will feel responsible for helping you get on the mend. My artist wanted to make sure I tackled the infection correctly and that I had all the support and information I needed. He wanted to be with me every step of the way and asked me to give him daily updates.

Treating Your Infection

With a small infection like mine, I listened to my artist’s instructions and followed these steps 3-4 times a day:

  • Wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap
  • Wash the tattoo with mild anti-bacterial soap (once or twice a day, you don’t need to do this every time you apply the cream)
  • Once washed, pat dry (very softly and carefully) with a clean towel or clean kitchen roll
  • Apply anti-bacterial cream (a very small amount – the aim of the game now is to dry your tattoo out) and rub in completely
  • Keep your tattoo aired, not covered
  • Try and keep off your feet if the tattoo is lower than your knee or take similar precautions for whatever area of the body it is on
  • Follow all the usual tattoo healing advice like keeping out of the water
  • DO NOT TOUCH OR PICK IT
  • Keep your immune system up by eating lots of healthy food, plenty of vitamin C, protein, fruit and vegetables and drinking lots of water – nights out and drinking alcohol WILL prolong your recovery time

You are now looking at a much longer healing time for your tattoo (at least 2 weeks – mine was 4). Your body will fight the infection and then the infected areas will form a thick scab which will eventually drop off. A week or so after it’s healed, you can go back to your tattooist and ask for a touch up if you need to.

When It’s More Serious

My tattoo was small enough that I was able to compare my infection to that of a small graze that you might get on your knee if you fall over. My artist and I felt confident that I was experiencing small infection symptoms that were manageable on my own.

Any extreme or large swelling, pain, heat, red marks or rashes, and your artist should recommend a trip to your GP or hospital ASAP. It might be that a course of antibiotics is the best thing to rid a severe infection, or they may need to investigate that it’s not something more sinister.

One of the main sentences you will see on the internet is that tattoo infections (like any infections in the body) can cause blood poisoning (sepsis). The symptoms of blood poisoning include a fever, high temperature, chills, shivering, a fast heartbeat, fast breathing and eventually sickness, dizziness and diarrhoea. If you experience any of these, seek medial attention immediately.

I have been getting tattooed for years now. I had never experienced a tattoo infection before and genuinely had no idea whether it was serious and rare, or common and manageable.

We live in a world where articles still exist online that highlight the fatal danger of tattoos and the risks of dirty tattooing conditions leading to deathly diseases. But after chatting to various artists this month I have come to learn a lot about tattoo infections and how common and treatable they are.

I think the best piece of possible advice is not to fester in the dark realms of the internet and your own thoughts – go and seek help. Help from your tattoo artist, from other studios, from people with tattoos who see this sort of thing all the time. If you are worried that you’ve been to an artist who isn’t trustworthy, see if any other artists in the area can offer advice.

Get lots of opinion, don’t panic, look after yourself, eat well, keep it clean. 

Also read our article on how to spot if you require antibiotics.

12 replies »

  1. Really good information. Many people are completely unaware that getting a tattoo and not looking after it correctly can cause a whole host of problems.

    Thanks for the helpful article and for spreading awareness, tattoo infections can truly get very nasty if not treated promptly.

    • Hi Steve, I would use Savlon but any anti-bacterial cream should be OK, I have used Boots own brand before too. Do you think you have a tattoo infection?

  2. Hey guys,

    Such a useful post I have been trawling the Internet for hours looking for some sound advice and this is by far the best.

    I get tattooed 3 days ago now and think I may have a small infection at the bottom of the wrist (I’m having a full sleeve) I’m washing it with antibacterial soap and putting bepanthen on it 3 times a day anyway but would you suggest moving to savlon? I have emailed my artist but don’t expect a reply till Monday!

    So far the symptoms are a red rash around parts of the tattoo and some yellowing and scabbing is occurring around a small section, the pain was quite bad last night and bad today but seemed to have dropped off a little bit now so perhaps it’s on the mend? I’m not new to tattooing so have been keeping it very clean and not been outside yet since so I’m baffled as to why it’s happening.

    Thanks for your advice

    Pete

  3. Hi thank you for actually putting it straight I got a small tattoo done and it seems to have picked up an infection similar to yours. Can the tattoo be fixed after such an infection?

  4. This is great advice! I believe there is a problem with my tattoo which I had done (only 4 days ago mind you) but my concern is it involves red ink (que dramatic dun dun duuuuuun) Its a simple rose tattoo and wording which runs on the back of my hand, thumbs and index finger and I know the hands can take a bit longer to heal. Ive had ink before but this is my first colour tattoo. There were 3 different shades of red ink used. Certain areas of the red rose have really raised pronounced scabs but the rest of it is flat and healing well. Its only painful when I lift something ie the skin stretches but hey thats normal right as its pulling at the scab? Im not sure if its just where its been overworked in places or there is a problem ie Im having an allergic reaction – there is no other redness or swelling. Ive just been using a very small amount of Savlon a few times a day in an effort to keep it clean but let it dry out. Any ideas?

  5. Thank you for this article! The irritation I’m currently experiencing looks just like the picture you posted. I suppose that means I’ve got a minor infection then. I’ve been combing around online trying to figure out what to do and this article is the best I’ve found so far. I’m still a bit worried about my tattoo, but I feel a little relieved to have found your advice.

  6. Hey there!
    This is the first article I’ve found that didn’t have me worried the doctor would need to chop my arm off so thanks! I got a small, single line tattoo on my forearm about a week ago and just noticed in the last couple of days that one spot is super red, tender, hot to touch and more raised than the rest of my tattoo. Tonight I was super worried and a little scab piece was loose so I was naughty and helped it off. Underneath, there was clear liquid (like when you pop a zit, not yellow or pure white, but foggy I guess) that “leaked” out (because ooze is too dramatic a word for this) so I’m assuming it’s infected. I messaged my artist so hopefully she’ll hit me up tomorrow but I’ve never had an infection before and since I’m assuming it’s minor, was hoping for your opinion? (This article is old so who knows if I’ll get any lol)

    Thanks!!

    • Hey Andy

      Thanks for getting in touch! Sounds like you’ll be absolutely fine as the tattoo is small and just one line so should be able to fight a small infection naturally. Do, however, talk to your tattooist if you have any problems – they should always be your first point of contact for these things and will know what to do 🙂 Good luck!

  7. Great article! I got a forearm tattoo done about 6 weeks ago, over the last couple of days I’ve noticed a small area about the size of a small finger nail is slightly sore. I think I’ve used to much aftercare on the area so letting it dry out for a couple of days, but will try savlon now. It’s not raised, red or leaking at all so fingers crossed.

  8. Hello! This blog post is a good read! I have an infected tattoo on my thigh that started 2 1/2 half weeks ago and I have a few small sections that are still quite sore and scabby. I was pretty stupid as I only went for a doc’s look-see a week after I got the tattoo, I should’ve gone immediately. The GP gave me a week’s worth of antibiotics (Curam 625g) along with a cream (Betamethasone 17-valerate) but, she did not tell me if I should clean my infected tattoo everyday (I should’ve called and asked). So, I washed it gently everyday before applying the cream. It has been 2 days after I completed the course of antibiotics and I’m wondering if I can put Dettol antiseptic cream on the small scabby areas? A scab fragment got torn off accidentally while I was changing clothes and I saw that underneath the scab, it was sticky, wet, and painful, can I use antiseptic cream on it? Also, it’s pretty difficult taking a shower without getting it wet ( I was told by another GP to never get it wet, just let it dry out), I tried wrapping my thigh with cling film but, the steam from the water creates water droplets under the cling film. I have been taking showers squatting to prevent the infected tattoo from getting wet.

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