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Researchers Report Skin Infections From Tattoos

August 12, 2011

A report published in the September issue of the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases indicates that two men contracted a rare bacterial skin infection from a tattoo parlor in Seattle, WA. This infection is typically found only in immune suppressed individuals.

The infection, called Mycobacterium haemophilum, is in the same family as those that cause tuberculosis and leprosy. Researchers indicate that symptoms include small bumps at the site of infection, redness, pain, swelling and discharge. The infection is resistant to traditional antibiotics and takes months to heal.

Researcher Meagan Kay, a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer with the public health department in Seattle and King County, wants to increase awareness so that doctors know to look for them. Kay says, “Clinicians should consider this bacterium as a potential cause of skin infections in persons who have recently received a tattoo.”

One case was that of a 44-year old man who developed a rash and small bumps on his arm after receiving a tattoo in August 2009. The infection remained even after several weeks of treatment with antibiotics. Months later doctors found the bacteria to be Mycobacterium haemophilum. He was then treated with three different antibiotics simultaneously and the infection healed six months later.

The second victim, from the same tattoo parlor, was suspected to have the same infection, but it was never confirmed.

The tattoo parlor was investigated, but found to be in compliance with Washington State’s safety and sanitation standards. The tattoo artists were using tap water to dilute the tattoo ink and rinse the skin. The researchers recommended tattoo artists always use distilled or sterile water.

Kay thinks that the healthy men may have contracted the infection because tattooing breaks the skin, which is a natural barrier for the body against infections.

To avoid infections, consumers should make sure the tattoo parlor they go to has properly trained artists, is clean and uses sterile equipment, Kay said. People who believe their tattoo to be infected should consult with their doctor, she said.

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