There's A Mysterious Tattoo Infection Outbreak Running Rampant

Infected tattooInfected tattoo

Photo: Photo by Matthew J. Mahlberg, M.D.

The FDA had a scary warning for those of us who enjoy body art: Tattoo ink infections are running rampant, and they haven’t been able to pin down the source.Skin infections caused by tattoos can be serious and difficult to treat, a perspective article by the New England Journal Of Medicine Notes. The new outbreak usually takes 4 to 6 months of treatment that comes with serious side effects. Some even require multiple surgeries.

We usually assume that tattoo-related infections come from infected needles, which used to be used on more than one person, but of late, more and more infections have been linked to the actual ink used by tattoo artists.

Tattoo parlors are overseen by state and local authorities to ensure safe tattooing practices and prevent contamination of inks.

The latest breakout of skin infections — known as nontuberculous mycobacterial infections — are associated with contaminated tattoo inks. There was a recent outbreak in New York of infections that showed up as red bumps (known as papules) on grey-coloured areas of recently acquired tattoos, like the image above.

M. chelonae bacteria.Image of M. chelonae

Photo: PHIL

“Efforts to identify additional cases nationwide revealed that there were other outbreaks of tattoo ink–related nontuberculous mycobacterial infection that were associated with multiple brands of ink, occurred in other states, and involved multiple species of mycobacteria (e.g., chelonae, fortuitum, and abscessus),” Pamela LeBlanc writes in NEJM.Because the outbreak is widespread, it’s likely that parlor-specific practices aren’t the cause. The authorities were even able to isolate the bacteria from an unopened ink pot. A total of 19 people had infections that could be traced to grey ink, from four different states.

“Thus, contamination could have occurred at various points in the ink-production process — for instance, from unsanitary manufacturing processes or the use of contaminated ingredients such as water, glycerin, or pigments,” LeBlanc writes.

A CDC blog post says that there isn’t much regulation on what goes into these tattooing inks:

Concentrated tattoo inks may be made from products that were never intended to be used for tattoos.  Tattoo ink manufacturers may use products such as calligraphy ink, drawing ink, or even printer ink to make the products eventually used for tattooing.  These manufacturers often sell their products online, and while their states may require them to hold a business licence, there is no regulation or oversight of the product itself.

The water used in these inks isn’t regulated either. Some artists think that using distilled water is safe enough, but in reality, the water should be sterilized, the post says. The result is below.




infected tattooImage of individual with NTM infection

Photo: CDC

Read more from the CDC on tattooing and tattoo inks.

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