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How do I know if my tattoo is infected?

Words by Caitlin Pyke

How do I know if my tattoo is infected?

If you are new to being tattooed, or maybe you’ve gotten a much bigger piece than usual, the healing process might not be what you expected. There are moments where we all panic and think “is this normal or is it infected?” Hopefully we can soothe your nerves a little, and explain how to know when you might need to see a doctor. Here are the signs to look out for that might indicate an infected tattoo, but rest assured, it’s very rare to get an infection and 90% of the time what you are experiencing is just a normal part of the healing process.

The tattoo is red and swollen for a long period of time

You can see some normal levels of redness expected in a fresh tattoo here

It’s normal for a brand new tattoo to have some redness around it, and appear swollen for a day or two, especially if it’s very large or in a sensitive area. But if the redness and swelling persists for more than a couple of days, or if it gets worse and begins to feel more tender, this could be a cause for concern. When my tattoo was infected after two days I noticed it was swelling weirdly, with the linework feeling tight, and the spaces inbetween being swollen and puffy. The skin felt really really tight, and still very hot. This was one of the things that made me concerned, and told me I needed to get my tattoo checked out.

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You have a rash or bumpy skin around your tattoo

If you notice a rash or lumpy, bumpy skin around your new tattoo, this could be something to worry about. Any itching that seems extreme, or rashes and cracked skin, could indicate infection. It’s normal to experience some itching, especially during later stages of healing when your skin is flakey and starting to regenerate, but in the first couple of days you probably shouldn’t be feeling itchy or rash-like. It’s also normal for the lines of your tattoo to feel raised when they are fresh, and they sometimes even feel raised years down the line, but if the skin around your tattoo is bumpy too, that could also be a sign of infection.

The tattoo is still oozing plasma after a couple of days

Normal 'day one' plasma after unwrapping a fresh tattoo

Another thing that you need to look out for, is your tattoo drying out. When it’s fresh, your tattoo will be leaking plasma, and maybe some blood. This will collect in the wrap over your tattoo, and usually after you’ve washed your tattoo for the first time, you won’t have any more plasma leaking. Once the tattoo is in the open air, it generally dries out and you shouldn’t see that much more leaking. If your tattoo is mostly dry, but still oozing a bit, you should probably get it checked out. When I noticed that my tattoo wasn’t drying out properly, and seemed a bit gunky, I decided to go and get it checked out at the hospital. If you notice your tattoo getting crusty and oozy in a way that feels and looks abnormal to your usual healing, this could indicate an infection.

You feel unwell and feverish

This tattoo is 5 days into healing and doing well

One of the clearest signs of an infection is that you feel unwell in yourself. It’s normal to feel a bit run down and tired after a long tattoo session, but if you begin to feel feverish or have the shakes, this could be a sign you have an infection. The best case scenario is that you catch an infection before it gets to the point where you feel it physically, but don’t fret as these things can be sorted out with treatment. If you feel this way during your healing process, don’t hesitate to go and get yourself checked out, it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry with these things.

Infection is treatable

If you think your tattoo may be infected, don’t panic. Take yourself to a GP, or a minor injuries unit if you are really concerned. When I had an infected tattoo I took myself to my local minor injuries, and initially the first nurse I spoke to dismissed me and said it was “just healing”. But I followed my gut instinct, as I knew the healing process well by that point and I knew it wasn’t normal. I went to a second hospital, and got a prescription for antibiotics. The infection was cleared up within a week, and I could see it starting to get better after a couple of days, which was really reassuring.

Most infections can be treated in this way, and some may even be treated with a topical ointment. It’s important that you do get an infection treated quickly though, as if left they could spread into your blood, and this could lead to complications like sepsis and toxic shock syndrome. The most important thing is to get it looked at, and be firm with your needs; many people do not understand tattoos very well, and they may dismiss your concerns. If your gut is telling you that something isn’t right, it probably isn’t.