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TATTOOS: Think before you ink

By Sola Ogundipe


Some call it Body Art, others just call it tattoo. Do you have a tattoo or intend to get one, then you need to read this. It  is estimated that one-tenth of adults in the large cities in Nigeria now have at least one tattoo, but getting Body Art may come with long-term medical risks.

While it is true that tattoos are becoming more popular than ever, it is also fact that more and more people than ever developing infections from contaminated tattoo inks, as well as adverse reactions to the inks. Reports of bad reactions to tattoo inks right after tattooing, even years later, are quite common.

Adverse effects

Several adverse effects involving tattoos have been reported in recent times. The rule of the thumb is this: Before you get a tattoo, you should consider certain key questions. In particular, be concerned about unsafe practices and the tattoo ink.

For many of those with tattoos or individuals who had at least one tattoo experience some type of issue such as swelling, rash, or severe itching that lasts longer than four months and even up to several years.

Some of these adverse reactions could be treated with anti-inflammatory steroids, others could require laser surgery. The most severe issues could result in the formation of scar tissue or skin lesions, and even require the removal of the tattooed area of the skin.

A significant number of people who receive tattoos experience short-term complications such as pain, swelling, infection, and delayed healing, and the individuals usually seek medical attention or treatment for those issues.

Long-term complications are most common in regions tattooed with red or black ink. The lack of regulatory oversight in the tattoo industry, as well as the lack of uniform standards amongst dye manufacturers and the poor understanding of the chemical composition of the coloured inks used in the process may play a role in these findings.

While you can get serious infections from unhygienic practices and equipment that isn’t sterile, infections can also result from ink that was contaminated with bacteria or mould. Inks and kits sold as “do-it-yourself” to consumers have been associated with infections and allergic reactions.

Using non-sterile water to dilute the pigments (ingredients that add colour) is a common culprit, although not the only one.

There’s no reliable way to tell if the ink used for the tattoo is safe. An ink can be contaminated even if the container is sealed or the label says the product is sterile. Some inks contain pigments used in printer toner or in car paint.

None of these chemicals are approved by health regulatory agencies. In fact the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or its Nigerian equivalent, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), has not approved any pigments for injection into the skin for cosmetic purposes.

Strange reactions

You also might become allergic to other products, such as hair dyes, if your tattoo contains a chemical known as p-phenylenediamene (PPD). Strange reactions may happen after getting a tattoo. You might notice a rash—redness or bumps—in the area of your tattoo, and you could develop a fever.

More aggressive infections may cause high fever, shaking, chills, and sweats. Treating such infections might require a variety of antibiotics—possibly for months—or even hospitalization and/or surgery. A rash may also mean you’re having an allergic reaction. And because the inks are permanent, the reaction may persist.

Scar tissue

Scar tissue can build up after getting a tattoo. The scar tissue may form when you get a tattoo, or you could develop “granulomas,” small knots or bumps that may form around material that the body perceives as foreign. If you tend to get keloids—scars that grow beyond normal boundaries—you may develop the same kind of reaction to the tattoo.

Some people may have swelling or burning in the tattoo when they have Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), although this happens rarely and does not last long.

There are still a lot of questions about the long-term effects of the pigments, other ingredients, and possible contaminants in tattoo inks.

If you get an infection

If you get a tattoo and develop an infection or other reaction, contact a health care professional. Notify the tattoo artist so he or she can identify the ink and avoid using it again. Ask for the brand, colour, and any lot or batch number of the ink or diluents to help determine the source of the problem and how to treat it.

Whether you’re a consumer, tattoo artist, or health care professional, tell the health expert. Provide as much details as possible about the ink and your reaction and outcome. Reports from consumers are one of the most important sources of safety information.

Removing tattoos

Then there’s tattoo removal. The short-or long-term consequences of how pigments break down are generally unknown. In addition, some tattoo removal procedures may leave permanent scarring.

Removing tattoos may be harder than you expect. So think before you ink. Consider the risks. Removing a tattoo is a painstaking process, and complete removal without scarring may be impossible.

You should be concerned

So should you be concerned because you are planning to get a tattoo?  Experts say it is something to think about. Apart from cosmetic purposes, tattoos have no health advantages. However, if you do decide to get a tattoo, have it done professionally.

Most persons that develop issues have longstanding, chronic complaints about their tattoo that could persist for months to years.

If you have chronic skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema, seek advice before getting a tattoo. If you already have a tattoos do not expose the tattooed parts to the sun, as exposure to sunlight can be a trigger for adverse reactions.



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