Study: Tattoos Can Cause Serious, Long-Term, Adverse Reactions

Inks of certain colors are the most problematic. (Photo: Getty Images)

Whether it’s a skull, cross, rose, or mom’s name in a thorn bush wrapped around the bicep, about one quarter of American adults have a tattoo. But a new study says about one out of every 10 inkers does not anticipate something that can come along with them: a severe, ongoing skin reaction.

In the just-published NYU Langone Medical Center research that studied tattoo-clad New Yorkers, those who reacted to tattoos experienced a rash, itching or swelling that lasted anywhere from four months to several years, with the longest-lasting complications stemming from ink shades of red and black.

“While we know infections are a risk of tattoos and can be dependent on tattoo parlor practices, a lot of the complications in our study — and that I have seen in my patients — do not have to do with the tattoo artist or parlor practices, but rather the qualities of ink and how the body’s immune system responds to it,” Marie C. Leger, MD, PhD, study lead and Assistant Professor at the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology, tells Yahoo Health.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The 300 respondents ranged in age from 18 to 69, with most having no more than five tattoos — and 67 percent of studied tattoos were on the arms. “We were rather alarmed at the high rate of reported chronic complications tied to getting a tattoo. Given the growing popularity of tattoos, physicians, public health officials and consumers need to be aware of the risks involved,” added Leger.

Related: The Psychology of Tattoos, as Demonstrated by Rex Ryan

While less than a third of the affected study participants saw a doctor for the reaction, the majority returned to the tattoo parlor to complain or ask for guidance. “Tattoo artists are ‘first responders’ when people have problems,” says Leger, who adds that a planned follow-up study will examine what kind of reactions artists see most frequently, and how clients are directed, in an effort to get people to the right place for help.

Experts are not surprised by the news. “While tattoos are popular among Americans, there is still little to no regulation of what exactly is being injected into the skin,” says Jeremy A. Brauer, MD, dermatologist and Director of Clinical Research at Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York, where he has seen patients with tattoo reactions — most often to red ink. The majority of patients have allergic contact dermatitis, which is marked by redness, swelling and itching in the area of the tattoo.

Treatment of tattoo reactions “can be challenging” says Brauer, who uses oral antihistamines combined with oral or injectable steroids to quell the inflammation. Blistering sometimes occurs and requires wound care and dressings, while evidence of infection is treated with antibiotics. More recently, there have been reports of successful laser treatment with both ablative and non-ablative fractional lasers, adds Bauer.

Related: FDA Warns That Tattoos Can Cause Infection 

For some, the discomfort never completely goes away, and they are even driven to remove the tattoo altogether. While nanosecond (“Q-switched”) lasers have been the tattoo removal standard, the newer PicoSure laser is now clearing tattoos in “far fewer treatments than before,” says Bauer. The laser also addresses and improves scarring that can be an accompanying issue with tattoos.

And when it comes to tattoo removal, there’s one design that stands out as the one most people want to get rid of: 52 percent of doctors say tribal tattoos are the style they most frequently are asked to remove, for any number of reasons – from discomfort to regret.

Looking ahead, Leger also has plans for a bigger survey to determine what tattoo dye components are most closely tied to adverse reactions. She hopes her investigation might also reveal other factors that put some people at higher risk of suffering chronic complications.

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