Tattoo you? Beware the Dangers

Did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo request a new sterile needle and individual packets of ink when she got her elaborate body art? As the debate rages on, whether tattoos and body piercings are vehicles of self-expression or body mutilation, body art is on the rise. And chances are, not everyone is practicing safe tattoo.

According to a 2010 Pew Research survey 38 percent of millennials (that’s the term demographers like to use to – loosely -- refer to those born between 1980 and 2000) has a tattoo, and for most, one is not enough.

OK, I don’t have one, but I’m a little older. You could say, though, that the tattoo thing is hitting close to home for me. My 14-year-old godson asked for one for his 15th birthday. I was concerned about the process and his exposure to hepatitis C (HCV) infection, so I was motivated to look into risks and preventative measures.

Just how safe are tattoo parlors I wondered. Most states do have codes that specify rules and regulations for tattoo/body piercing establishments and artists; but enforcement seems to be hit or miss. I had a talk with a local code enforcement employee here in Georgia, who asked to remain anonymous. The officer told me there is no current code enforcement of tattoo/body piercing establishments in Fulton County, where Atlanta is located, although officials are working on parameters now.

With an estimated 3.2 million chronically-infected persons nationwide, HCV is the most common blood borne infection in the United States with an estimated 17,000 new cases each year. What was really alarming is three-fourths of people with HCV do not know they have it.

Tattoos and body piercings puncture the skin with a needle which is one of the ways HCV is transmitted. According to the CDC there is no definitive evidence for an increased risk of HPV infection when tattoos and piercings are done in professional parlors, but the risk of infection is significant - especially among high-risk groups -- when tattoos are applied in prison settings or by friends.

Definitive evidence or not what we do know is young people like tattoos and body piercings. Going into an establishment and adhering to the following precautions can mitigate possible risks:

  • Make sure the artist is using brand new sterile needles for each client.
  • Do not use ink from an ink receptacle that may be shared by other clients
  • Ensure you are receiving ink from individual packets that are opened in your presence
  • If you and a friend are getting a tattoo together the same rules apply. No sharing.
  • Vaseline and other ointments should be applied with new tools. Ointments should not be applied by the artist’s hand.
  • Non-disposable tattoo equipment should be sterilized by an autoclave and not an ultra sonic cleaner or by simply washing with rubbing alcohol. An autoclave uses super hot steam under high pressure to clean and kill germs.
  • Getting a tattoo while in prison, or at a friend’s house, significantly increases your risk of infection

I suspect additional information will emerge as data collection methods become more sophisticated and testing becomes more prevalent. According to the CDC’s Viral Hepatitis report, 2009 was the first year case-report data for hepatitis C was included into the report. Inclusion of this data represents an important first step towards national monitoring of the prevalence of viral hepatitis in the United States.