Advice and Aftercare

How to know when a tattoo infection requires antibiotics

Last year, I blogged about having a small tattoo infection. These things happen, I got advice from my tattooist, and subsequently created a little guide for anyone experiencing something similar – check it out here.

As my infection was so minor, I was able to deal with it myself with no medical attention. This week however, I have experienced a more sinister infection. In true tattoo blogger style, I instantly had to share this with the world, to help those who might find themselves in the same sticky situation.

My initial article is one of the most viewed on this blog, and I receive at least one email per week from individuals suffering with tattoo infections, not knowing where to turn.

If you think you may have a tattoo infection, do head over to read this guide. If you’ve already done that, and are worrying that your infection may be more severe, then this new blog is for you.


LESSON 1: BLOOD INFECTIONS

Any wound can become serious. If you get an infection in the wound, it can potentially (in extreme circumstances) spread to your blood. Blood poisoning can be fatal and must receive immediate attention from a hospital.

So, how can you identify a severe tattoo infection, and reduce any risk of blood poisoning?

If you experience pain in the limb that's been tattooed, it feels numb or like you can't move it - go to hospital

If you experience pain in the limb that’s been tattooed, it feels numb or like you can’t move it – go to hospital

With my tattoo infection last year, it was extremely small (the tattoo was 2 inches square and the main infected area 1 centimetre square). I was able to treat this on my own, from home, with antiseptic cream, and not freak out about anything more serious, like blood poisoning. The symptoms of which are available on the NHS website.

If you experience any of these symptoms, go straight to A&E:

  • Extreme swelling, pain, heat
  • Red streaky marks or rashes on the skin
  • A foul smelling wound
  • Flu-like symptoms / shivers
  • Sickness / diarrhoea
  • Dizziness / disorientation
  • Muscle pain / inability to move the limb which has been tattooed

Now you’ve had a lesson on the extreme case, let’s backtrack, and ensure you don’t ever reach that point!


LESSON 2: IDENTIFYING SOMETHING IS WRONG

Firstly, when it comes to fresh tattoos, you cannot be too careful! Read our tattoo aftercare guide, and make sure you dedicate time and energy to looking after your new tattoo.

Wash your hands before touching and cleaning your tattoo - whether it's infected or not!

Wash your hands with antibacterial soap before touching and cleaning your tattoo – whether it’s infected or not!

If you get tattooed regularly, you’ll spot something wrong quickly. I normally stop ‘leaking’ after 24 hours… when I was still staining bed-sheets in the second day of healing, I knew something was up.

Most people follow a tattoo aftercare procedure that involves keeping your tattoo wrapped for at least 48 hours. Sadly, this means that if you’ve contracted an infection, it’s going to get worse and breed in this wet, hot environment. If your tattoo is still extremely weepy (leaking liquid) after these first two days, ditch the cling film and give it some good, fresh air.


LESSON 3: IDENTIFYING AN INFECTION

Within the next 24 hours, I experienced an increase in weeping (yellow liquid), redness, foul smell, heat and scabbing – a potential sign of an infection. With a new tattoo, symptoms you experience should start to decrease and get better after the first couple of days, not get worse.

As mentioned, it can be extremely difficult to identify a tattoo infection. Allergies to inks, tender skin from re-working and cover-up tattoos, and normal post-tattoo discomfort and weeping can ring alarm bells but aren’t necessarily an indication of anything sinister. My tattoo was a re-work, of a re-work, and so I initially put my reaction down to traumatised skin.

The healing will be different for each and every tattoo in the world. Some heal quickly, some take longer, some experience difficulties – it’s not always going to go smoothly each time, and just because your tattoo is aggravated, doesn’t mean you definitely have an infection. New tattoos tend to be weepy, red and tender in the first few days.

The first reaction from most is to analyse the source of a potential infection.

If your tattooist is respectable and following all the correct hygiene procedures, then you’re likely to have picked up an infection during your own aftercare process. Things to look out for – good artists will have single-use needles and sterile tattoo machinesrun a clean, sterile working environment, and change their gloves after touching anything else during your tattooing period.

My advice – don’t waste time analysing the source of your pain. Focus on getting better and fighting it! What’s done is done.

That being said, my first and biggest tip with all of this is to seek out advice, help and reassurance. If you’re like me, and can fester in health worries, just speaking to someone you trust on a regular basis can make the world of difference.

I reached out to various artists, friends and family members, and was able to collate lots of different advice. Even those without tattoos have dealt with open wounds before, how to keep them clean and what to look out for.

Good old-fashioned common sense, chatting to people, and my friend Google told me that I had an infection due to my increasing symptoms of heat, redness, swelling and weeping (thick yellow liquid or puss). I knew straight away that I needed to keep any infected wound dry, clean and open to the air.

I did just that, and followed this advice to begin with:

  • Do not use cling film or cover your tattoo in any way from now on
  • Wash your tattoo two – three times a day with just water or light antibacterial wash
  • Once a day (if necessary) apply a very thin layer of Savlon (some tattooists would discourage this as it can ruin tattoos and how the ink looks)

LESSON 4: IDENTIFYING THE NEED FOR ANTIBIOTICS

I followed these steps but later on that day, I began to feel ill – I had a temperature, felt run down and tired, and even began to feel the symptoms of a urine infection and tooth infection (both of which I was very prone to already). My body wasn’t happy.

If you similarly feel like an infection might be taking its toll on you, or your infection is large, as mine was, e.g. weeping over a large surface area (more than a couple of inches), you’re likely to need something else to help you fight this thing.

It might be the case that a course of antibiotics is needed to help you fight infection

It might be the case that a course of antibiotics is needed to help you fight infection

A quick trip to the GP confirmed an infection and high-temperature, and I was put on a 7 day course of antibiotics that were specifically designed to fight skin infections. There’s no harm in a trip to your doctor if you’re worried – better safe than sorry.

I’m on day 2 of my antibiotics (coupled with rest, healthy food, Vitamin C, no alcohol and drinking lots of water) and already feeling mentally better, noticing my symptoms reducing over time (contrary to seeing them getting worse each hour before).

Don’t expect overnight miracles. There’s a long road ahead once a thick scab has formed over an infected tattoo – you’re looking at 2-5 weeks before the scab has dropped off and the skin feels initially healed. Throughout this period you need to:

  • Focus on getting better – no alcohol, late nights or anything that might hinder your body getting well
  • Keep your tattoo dry and clean, following the original steps listed above
  • As the antibiotics fight your infection and your tattoo dries, out it will form a thick scab – do not pick or touch this, it must fall off naturally (as mentioned, this may take weeks)
  • Do not submerge your tattoo in water, be careful when showering and post-shower use a clean towel to dab off excess water
  • Until a proper scab forms, your tattoo will still weep – don’t hesitate to take a clean towel, flannel or strong tissue (like kitchen roll) with you so you can dab it to avoid dripping everywhere (disinfect your hands first and throw away / clean anything you use)
  • Other than the odd bit of Savlon, don’t put anything else on your tattoo
  • Once completely healed, you may feel coconut butter, coconut oil or Bio Oil is a good choice for moisturising your skin. Assess the damage at this point and consult your artist on any touch ups (which won’t happen straight away, you’ll need to leave your scar for a certain period of time before attacking it again, a rest is no bad thing!)

WHAT HAVE I LEARNT?

  • With tattoo healing problems, there’s no right answer. Every person will have different advice and that’s no bad thing.
  • Infections are hard to diagnose. Is it yellow ink, or puss?
  • Eating and drinking the right foods and liquids can help fight infections naturally (I’ll be blogging about this separately as have lots to say!)
  • Don’t leave it too late. Things can turn in just a few hours so don’t be tempted to just ‘see what happens tomorrow’.
  • Take it one day at a time. ‘What will I be left with? Will scarring be fixable?’ Just concentrate on getting better and cross that bridge at a later date.
  • Don’t hesitate to make an emergency appointment with your GP to analyse the level of infection.

The biggest lesson of all… talking to people regularly is invaluable. Considering the amount of people who reach out and email this blog, I couldn’t not share this story. Having an external network to talk to will help you track your own progress and not work yourself up internally and fear the worse. Find a close friend who can get geeky about it too and give a regular second opinion (sometimes you’ll think something looks worse but others will reassure you it’s better).

Happy healing. <3

1 reply »

  1. Exactly whats happened with my arm, got a tattoo on thursday (week ago) and my course of anti biotics, alot of the piece has got infected. Taking anti septic cream and washing it gently, still breaking a little and bleeding, not sure what to do so it doesn’t happen! Hearing what you had to do has helped me massively in staying positive! I live in England and not sure what cream will also speed up the recovery process

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