Thinking About Getting a Tattoo? Think Again
April 9, 2001 -- Beth Blackmarr, 38, is an insurance executive in Cleveland, Ohio. In a business suit, briefcase in hand, she is all button-down, no-nonsense professional. But under the suit she carries five permanent reminders of her life as a teenager in LaGrange, Ky. -- five tattoos.-->
Blackmarr tells WebMD that she got the tattoos at a commercial tattoo parlor when she was in her teens. She says she now wishes she could get the tattoos removed, but "I've never been overly concerned about health problems because of the tattoos." That, however, may change.
A new study by a former CDC researcher suggests that getting a tattoo can significantly increase the risk of hepatitis C, a viral infection of the liver for which there is no cure and which often leads to fatal liver disease.
Hepatitis C is considered a major public health risk because it is a silent disease, which lies dormant for decades before it flares up. The CDC estimates that 4 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C and about 10,000 people die from the disease each year.
Although there is no cure, the disease is treated with a combination of an antiviral drug called ribavarin and immune therapy with interferon. The treatment is very long -- 48 weeks -- and is difficult to tolerate because of unpleasant side effects including headaches, constant nausea, fatigue, and depression. -->
Hepatitis C is spread by blood-to-blood contamination, says lead study author Robert Haley, MD, chief of epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) in Dallas. Injection drug abusers have an increased risk for hepatitis C because they often share needles. Healthcare workers, especially nurses, are also considered high risk for hepatitis C because of "accidental needle sticks," he says. And because the nation's blood supply was not tested for hepatitis C until about 10 years ago, blood transfusions before 1991 are also considered a risk factor for transmission of hepatitis C.
"But when all the known risk factors are considered, the majority of hepatitis C cases are still not accounted for," says Haley, who worked for more than 10 years at the CDC before joining the faculty at UTSW. "That's because tattoos were left out of the equation. When we consider tattoos as a risk factor we can explain the difference."
"People who had do-it-yourself tattoos have a three times greater risk for hepatitis C than people without tattoos, and people tattooed in jail have an even higher risk. But the greatest risk comes from commercial tattoo parlors," he says. "People who get tattoos at commercial tattoo parlors have a nine times greater risk."
He bases his risk calculations on a study of over 600 people who were patients at a spine clinic in the early 1990s. The patients agreed to be evaluated for blood-borne infections, says Haley. The evaluation included detailed information about lifestyle risk factors as well as blood tests.