Is your tattooed area looking terrible or oozing some fluid? If you have more than a minor itch or redness, you might be experiencing a tattoo rash. It can happen right after you have gotten inked or even years after you have had a tattoo.
A tattoo rash is not something to be ignored. So read on to know what a tattoo rash is, its causes, treatment and prevention tips.
What Is Tattoo Rash And What Does It Look Like?
It is normal to have some redness, swelling or itchiness after you get a new tattoo. This is your immune system working against the ink injected into your skin and it should subside within a couple of weeks.  However, if these symptoms persist or become severe, then you might be having an allergic reaction to the tattoo ink. You might see red, bumpy rashes in and around your tattooed area.
Tattoo rash may be accompanied by the following symptoms: 
- Pimple like small bumps
- Redness, swelling and itchiness
- Scaly patches that are raised
- Skin crusts or flakes
- Pus like fluid oozing from the area
In case of a more severe reaction, you might experience shortness of breath, dizziness, stomach ache, severe pain or a burning sensation. You should immediately consult a healthcare professional in case of such reactions.
What Causes Tattoo Rash?
Maintenance of proper hygiene and keeping the tattooed area protected ensures that your tattoo heals properly. Despite all precautions, you may still develop a rash on your tattoo due to the following reasons.
1. Allergy To Tattoo Ink
The ink used for tattooing contains pigments derived from metal salts. You may develop an allergy to any of the coloured inks. However, red ink is mostly associated with tattoo reactions. Some people also develop tattoo related allergies post retroviral therapy or joint replacement surgeries.
Infections are a less common cause for tattoo rashes than allergic reactions. However, if the tattooing equipment is contaminated or the water used for diluting tattoo inks is not sterilised properly, it can lead to the entry of germs while the artwork is done.
The process of tattooing leads to the breaking of your skin’s barrier. Germs can enter from here, if the tattooed area is not taken care of as advised by the experts. Staphylococcus infection and impetigo are common reasons for tattoo rashes. These can cause acne like bumps or scaling of the tattooed area.
3. Photo Sensitivity
Your tattooed skin may become extremely sensitive to sun exposure. You may get redness or rashes in the tattooed area whenever you step out in the sun uncovered. Yellow tattoo ink may contain cadmium sulfide which is responsible for the allergic reaction. Red, blue or black ink may also cause photosensitivity in tattooed skin. The rashes may develop immediately or may take upto hours to appear.
4. Predisposed To Skin Conditions
Tattooing can initiate or cause flare-ups of skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, vitiligo, lichen planus or sarcoidosis.  You might already be genetically predisposed to these disorders.The puncturing of skin during tattooing and introduction of the ink can act as a stimulus. This is known as the ‘Koebner phenomenon’. Some people develop skin conditions within days of getting inked, while for others it shows up after several years.
5. Reaction to MRI
Some people might get an MRI burn on their tattooed skin. The MRI machine sends out radiofrequency waves which are attracted by the metallic pigments in your tattoo. These can generate heat and result in a burn in the tattoo area.  Do inform the technician about having tattoos before going for an MRI. Also, request to stop the process if you feel an intense burning or stinging in the tattooed skin.
What Happens When Tattoo Ink Is Injected Into Skin?
The tattoo artist’s tool pricks your skin about a hundred times in a second. This helps to lodge the pigments deep into your dermis, the layer of skin below the epidermis (the outermost skin layer which renews itself constantly). This ensures the permanence of the tattoo on your skin.
The dermis has a lot of blood vessels and nerves. As soon as the ink is injected into the skin, cells of the immune system known as the macrophages come into action and engulf the pigments. Most of the pigments stay put in the tattooed region trapped between the skin cells and the immune cells.
But research has shown that some pigments may be carried to the lymph nodes and get deposited there. In some experimental studies, the pigments of tattoo ink have been shown to enter the bloodstream and even reach the liver.
Even though there is no conclusive evidence of carcinogenic effects of tattoo inks, many of them do contain residues of heavy metals such as cobalt, nickel or chromium which may pose health hazards in the long run.
How To Get Rid Of Tattoo Rash?
Depending on the severity and underlying cause of the tattoo rash, you can choose from the following treatment options:
- Applying cold compression to the irritated area may help reduce the redness and swelling if your breakouts are not so severe.
- Applying an unscented moisturizing cream or lotion after consulting your tattoo artist can help relieve extreme itching in case of allergic reactions.
- If moisturisers do not help with the rashes, you can opt for an over-the-counter steroid cream for topical application, to help soothe the inflammation.
- You can try non- prescription antihistamine drugs, which will help reduce flare-ups.
- If your doctor confirms an infection in the tattoo region, you will need to take necessary antibiotics or antiviral drugs for the time period advised by your doctor.
- If you have extreme discomfort or signs of systemic infections such as difficulty in breathing, dizziness or stomach pain, you should immediately see a doctor.
Tips To Prevent A Tattoo rash
To save yourself from the pain and trouble of the adverse effects, or disfiguration of the precious piece of art on your body, you can take the following precautions.
1. Do your research well :
Look for a reputable establishment with reliable and trained professionals before going under the needle. Also ensure that new or sterile equipment and ingredients are used for tattooing you. This will prevent transmission of germs to your bloodstream and will protect you not only from rashes but also from deadly diseases.
2. Diligent aftercare :
You should diligently take care of the newly tattooed area as per the instructions of your tattoo artist. Wash the tattoo area carefully with a mild cleanser and apply a moisturizer to assist the healing process.
3. Use sunscreen :
Wear a high SPF sunscreen or protective clothing over your tattooed skin to avoid photosensitive reaction. It is best to avoid long hours under the sun when you have just got inked.
4. Wear loose clothing :
Avoid wearing tight fitting clothes or wrapping tight bandages around your newly acquired tattoo.
How Long Does Tattoo Rash Last?
After getting a new tattoo, your skin needs some time to heal and also to adjust to the foreign particles present in tattoo ink. Your tattoo artist is the best person to advise on post tattooing care and recovery period.
A mild to moderate tattoo rash should clear up in a week or two. If your rashes last longer than that, maybe it is time to see a doctor.
Also, some scarring or swelling of the tattoo area while it is healing is quite normal. If it disappears in a week and does not return, you won’t need to worry about it. Taking good care of your skin during this phase should help.
You have to gather a lot of courage and go through some pain to get tattooed. However, in some cases, adverse reactions like a tattoo rash can happen. While this may occur due to varied reasons, you should research well before getting inked. Also, do take good care of your tattoo once it is done. Always consult a doctor if you have any health concerns.
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