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Tattoo Problems

Overview

A tattoo is a series of puncture wounds that carry ink into the different levels of the skin. At first, the tattoo may be swollen. There may be some crusting on the surface. It's normal for the tattoo to ooze small amounts of blood for up to 24 hours. And it may ooze clear, yellow, or blood-tinged fluid for several days.

Problems with tattoos include:

  • Infection at the tattoo site. If you think you have an infection, call your doctor right away. Early treatment may prevent health problems or damage to your tattoo.
  • Minor skin reactions (contact dermatitis) or serious allergic reactions to the tattooing method or ink.
  • Scarring. This can include raised scar tissue (keloids).
  • The spread of infectious disease if a dirty method or equipment is used. Diseases include hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and tetanus.

Be sure to think about all aspects of getting a tattoo. A tattoo should be considered permanent. Tattoo removal is hard and may cause scarring. It may not be possible to completely remove a tattoo and restore your normal skin color and texture.

Temporary tattoos, such as henna tattoos (mehndi), may also cause problems. Most of the ingredients in temporary tattoos are safe for application to the skin. But there have been reports of allergic skin reactions (contact dermatitis) to the ingredients in some of the tattoos.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have a problem with a tattoo?
Yes
Tattoo problem
No
Tattoo problem
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female

The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.

  • If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
  • If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
  • If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Could you be having a severe allergic reaction?
This is more likely if you have had a bad reaction to something in the past.
Yes
Possible severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
No
Possible severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
Are there any hives?
Hives are raised, red, itchy patches of skin. They usually have red borders and pale centers. They may seem to move from place to place on the skin.
Yes
Hives
No
Hives
Did the hives appear within the past 3 hours?
Yes
Hives appeared within past 3 hours
No
Hives appeared within past 3 hours
Are there any symptoms of infection?
Yes
Symptoms of infection
No
Symptoms of infection
Do you think you may have a fever?
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Are there red streaks leading away from the area or pus draining from it?
Yes
Red streaks or pus
No
Red streaks or pus
Do you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, peripheral arterial disease, or any surgical hardware in the area?
"Hardware" includes things like artificial joints, plates or screws, catheters, and medicine pumps.
Yes
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
No
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
Is there any swelling near the tattoo?
Yes
Swelling at site of tattoo
No
Swelling at site of tattoo
Is the swelling severe and rapid?
Severe swelling may cut off blood flow and make the area below the tattoo cool or painful.
Yes
Severe, rapid swelling near tattoo
No
Severe, rapid swelling near tattoo
Is the swelling over a joint, such as the ankle, elbow, or hip?
Yes
Swelling is over a joint
No
Swelling is over a joint
Has swelling lasted for more than 2 days?
Yes
Swelling for more than 2 days
No
Swelling for more than 2 days
Do you think you may need a tetanus shot?
Yes
May need tetanus shot
No
May need tetanus shot
Have you had symptoms of an infectious illness in the several months since you got the tattoo?
Yes
Symptoms of infectious illness
No
Symptoms of infectious illness
Have you had problems with the tattoo for more than 2 weeks?
Yes
Problems with tattoo for more than 2 weeks
No
Problems with tattoo for more than 2 weeks

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Symptoms of infection may include:

  • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
  • Red streaks leading from the area.
  • Pus draining from the area.
  • A fever.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Usually found in dirt and soil, tetanus bacteria typically enter the body through a wound. Wounds may include a bite, a cut, a puncture, a burn, a scrape, insect bites, or any injury that may cause broken skin.

You may need a tetanus shot depending on how dirty the wound is and how long it has been since your last shot.

  • For a dirty wound that has things like dirt, saliva, or feces in it, you may need a shot if:
    • You haven't had a tetanus shot in the past 5 years.
    • You don't know when your last shot was.
  • For a clean wound, you may need a shot if:
    • You have not had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years.
    • You don't know when your last shot was.

If proper technique and clean instruments are not used, there is a chance of getting an infectious disease when you get a tattoo or body piercing.

Symptoms of an infectious illness may include:

  • An overall feeling of tiredness and lack of energy.
  • Dark urine or light-colored stool.
  • A new yellow tint to the skin or the whites of the eyes (jaundice).
  • Muscle or joint pain that lasts a long time.
  • Belly pain.
  • Fever.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) may include:

  • The sudden appearance of raised, red areas (hives) all over the body.
  • Rapid swelling of the throat, mouth, or tongue.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Passing out (losing consciousness). Or you may feel very lightheaded or suddenly feel weak, confused, or restless.

A severe reaction can be life-threatening. If you have had a bad allergic reaction to a substance before and are exposed to it again, treat any symptoms as an emergency. Even if the symptoms are mild at first, they may quickly become very severe.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.

Self-Care

Most minor swelling and redness (inflammation) from a tattoo can be treated at home. If your tattoo artist gave you instructions, follow them carefully. If you didn't get instructions for skin care of the tattoo site, try using these.

  • Stop any bleeding.

    Minimal bleeding can be stopped by applying direct pressure to the wound. It's normal for the tattoo site to ooze small amounts of blood for up to 24 hours and to ooze clear, yellow, or blood-tinged fluid for several days.

  • Apply a cold pack.

    This can help reduce swelling, bruising, or itching. Never apply ice directly to the skin. It can cause tissue damage. Put a layer of fabric between the cold pack and the skin.

  • Take an antihistamine to treat hives and relieve itching.

    Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Don't use strong soaps, detergents, and other chemicals. They can make itching worse.

  • Protect your tattoo with a bandage.

    If you think your tattoo might become dirty or irritated, cover it with a bandage. Follow these steps when using a bandage.

    • Apply a thin layer of a water-based cream or lotion to a nonstick bandage, such as Telfa.
    • Apply the nonstick bandage with the cream or lotion on it to the tattoo site. This will prevent the irritated skin from sticking to the bandage. Putting the cream or lotion on the bandage first will be less painful.
    • Leave the bandage off, if you used one, with the skin open to air whenever you can.

When to call for help during self-care

Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:

  • New or worse signs of an allergic reaction, such as swelling, hives, itching, vomiting, or trouble breathing.
  • New or worse signs of infection, such as redness, warmth, swelling, pus, or a fever.
  • Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.

Learn more

Preparing For Your Appointment

Credits

Current as of: November 15, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor MD - Emergency Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine

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