Beyond Tattoo Regret: The Public Health Dangers of Ink

- By Michael Yaremchuk, M.D. - 03/07/2013

Despite all the warnings and taboos in certain social circles, a 2012 Harris Poll found that 21 percent of Americans (one in five) has a tattoo, up from 14 percent in 2008. In the poll, 86 percent of people claimed to not regret the tattoo, but this varies. According to a study reported by The Huffington Post last July, close to one-third of people who have gotten a tattoo regret it.

Not surprisingly, with the rise of tattoos, we see a rise in demand for tattoo removal. Laser tattoo removal procedures increased 32 percent from 2011 to 2012 according to one survey, with "employment" often cited as the reason.

Given tattoos' increased popularity and decreased taboo factor in recent years, many people are under the impression that tattoos are extremely safe, especially if they visit a well-respected tattoo artist in a sterile setting. However, a 2012 New England Journal of Medicine article looks at the public health issues resulting from nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM), a bacterial infection caused by contaminated tattoo ink -- ink that was contaminated before distribution to the parlors.

According to the FDA, which is looking into these issues: "M. chelonae, one of several disease-causing NTM species, can cause lung disease, joint infection, eye problems and other organ infections."

NTM infections are easy to misdiagnose, with symptoms that appear much like an allergic reaction (red papules, or solid, raised spots on the skin that often appear soon after a new tattoo). The infections are also difficult to treat, with some treatment plans lasting more than six months.

Due to the serious risks posed by contaminated ink, the FDA is encouraging health care providers, consumers and tattoo artists alike to report in with its MedWatch program in the hopes that these efforts will extend regulation beyond the tattoo parlor. A full list of recommendations on what to do if you suspect you might have NTM, as well as the causes of contaminated ink, are on the FDA's website.

Even for those who do not become infected with contaminated ink-related illnesses, the decision to get any permanent cosmetic procedure should not be made lightly. As with plastic surgery, the results of these procedures will become a part of you. Even with modern tattoo removal technology, your skin will never look the same -- scar tissue takes the place of the "removed" ink.

Before undergoing such a permanent procedure, I'd urge you to weigh the medical implications as well as the personal and professional ones. With the risks of infection, as well as the pain of laser tattoo removal, remember the permanent part of permanent ink. Despite the technological advances in laser surgery, it is very difficult to get rid of a tattoo's traces completely. Consider celebrities such as Angelina Jolie or Johnny Depp who still sport traces of tattoos with the name of their exes, though they've attempted to cover up with new tattoos or remove them with laser surgery. Tattoos become a permanent piece of your skin, and along with the emotional distress of choosing an image you might not want to live with after all, many find the remorse of infection or of inadequate removal to be equally painful.

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