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Tattoos: What You Need to Know

If you're thinking about getting a tattoo, you need to know the risks so you can make an informed decision.

  • Infection: The risk of infection is why the American Association of Blood Banks requires a one-year wait between getting a tattoo and donating blood. The spread of diseases such as hepatitis can come from the use of unsterile needles and equipment. To avoid infection, all tattooing equipment needs to be clean and sterile. And even if the needles are sterile, it's possible the equipment that holds them may not be. That's because the equipment's design may keep it from being completely sterilized. Tattooed areas need proper care for the first week or so to guard against infection.
  • Removal problems: Removing a tattoo is a painstaking, inexact process. It usually involves several laser or dermabrasion treatments and is often costly. And some tattoos may be impossible to remove without scarring. The skin where a tattoo has been removed never looks normal. So before getting a tattoo, be sure you want it for the long run.
  • Allergic reactions: Allergic reactions to tattoo pigments are rare. But they do happen, and when they do, they can be particularly troublesome. That's because the pigments can be hard to remove. It's also possible to have an allergic reaction after you've had a tattoo for years.
  • Granulomas: These are nodules that may form around material that the body sees as foreign, such as tattoo pigment.
  • Keloidformation: Keloids -- scars that grow beyond normal boundaries -- may form any time you injure or traumatize your skin. If you are prone to them, you are at risk of them forming after a tattoo.
  • MRIcomplications: There have been reports of people with tattoos or permanent makeup who experience swelling or burning in the tattooed areas during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This seems to occur only rarely and apparently without lasting effects. There have also been reports of tattoo pigments interfering with the quality of an MRI image. This seems to occur mainly when a person with permanent eyeliner gets an MRI of the eyes. Mascara may produce a similar effect, but it can easily be removed. Why these problems happen is unclear. It's possible they result from an interaction with the metallic components of some pigments.

The risks of avoiding an MRI when your doctor has recommended one are likely to be much greater than the risks of complications from a tattoo. Instead of avoiding an MRI, people who have tattoos or permanent makeup should tell the radiologist or technician in order to take precautions to avoid complications.