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MRSA and Tattoos - What are the Risks?

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MRSA and Tattoos - What are the Risks?

Diagnosed MRSA Infection

Photo © James Green
With all the talk about MRSA (pronounced MER-suh) in the news lately, it’s no wonder it’s causing such widespread panic. It seems like every day we’re hearing about someone having the dreaded “superbug,” which then leads to discussions of cleanliness, quarantines and the blame game. As a result, I’ve also been getting a lot of emails from readers wanting to know what their risks are in relation to getting tattoos (and piercings).

What is MRSA?
I don’t think I need to get into the details of what MRSA is, seeing as we’ve been bombarded with those facts in every news report about it. But, just in case you still aren’t clear on the details, here’s a few great resources:

Note: The rest of this article was written based on the helpful information provided by Emily Booth, Ph.D., Chief Information & Training Officer of the Indianapolis (IN) Red Cross.

What are the Risks?
Potentially, anyone who gets a tattoo or piercing is at risk for contracting an infection – and yes, that includes MRSA. MRSA is a bigger threat in comparison to other infections because it’s easily spread and more difficult (but not impossible) to treat. And, in rare cases, MRSA is more severe and can even be fatal.

When getting a tattoo or piercing, the bacteria can be passed from the artist to the client, from a tool to the client, or even from the client to themselves. Since the MRSA bacteria can reside on the body of a carrier (known as a colonizer) without their knowledge and with no adverse effects to their own health, it’s possible for an artist to spread the infection to a client through skin or tool contact. But if the client themselves are a colonizer, they can be infected with the bacteria from their own bodies once the skin has been broken for the tattoo or piercing.

That can sound pretty scary, but by following Universal Precautions, your artist can reduce your risk of exposure to infectious bacteria and blood borne pathogens almost completely.

What are Universal Precautions?
Universal Precautions – which some tattoo artists refer to as a “sterile chain of events” – is a set of precautionary steps defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to prevent the spread of disease. Tattoo artists are required by law to follow Universal Precautions for the safety of themselves and their clients. Any artist found not following this sterile chain of events can have their licensing and/or certification revoked. Any studio found not following U.P. guidelines can be shut down. Details of U.P. guidelines can be found on the CDC website, but the basics include things like using gloves and other barriers on anything the artist comes in contact with, disinfecting all surfaces and general cross-contamination prevention. When followed to the letter, your chances of being exposed to staph infection of any kind are very minimal.

Notice that I can't promise there is no risk, even if everything is done properly. That can be a little disconcerting, but life in general is full of risks. You might get hit by lightning if you go out in a rainstorm and you might get shot when you're out grocery shopping. But those risks are minimal enough that we continue to live our lives, accepting the fact that freak accidents are still possible. Knowing that these risks exist should only make us more aware and more careful; not paranoid.

Client Responsibility
Your first responsibility as a patron of any tattoo or piercing establishment is full disclosure of any illness or medical conditions, and any medications you are currently taking. Don't leave something out just because you don't think it should affect getting tattooed or pierced, and do not avoid being honest with your artist because you think they might deny you. It is not worth losing your life for a tattoo or piercing!

Assuming that your artist follows Universal Precautions and does everything possible to give you a clean and safe tattoo, that doesn't end your risk of infection. Your artist will provide you with aftercare instructions for your new tattoo or piercing, and the moment you walk out their door it becomes your responsibility. An open wound is still vulnerable; until your tattoo or piercing is completely healed, your risk of exposure continues.

It is very important that you follow your artist's aftercare instructions, keeping your tattoo or piercing clean at all times. It's also important that you keep a very close eye on it during the healing process so that you notice anything suspicious right away. If you detect any signs of any kind of infection, go to the doctor immediately. Unfortunately, we are beyond the days when you could try to treat an infection at home. Because of the MRSA threat, it's important that you have any infection examined by a doctor before it becomes life-threatening.

Artist Liability
In November of 2007, two unlicensed tattooers were brought up on criminal charges after three of their clients were infected with MRSA. Does that mean all tattoo artists risk being blamed if a client gets sick? Not necessarily, but it depends on the situation. The tattooers in question were unlicensed in a regulated state. That automatically lays blame on the artist for not following proper licensing procedures required by the state. Also, since there were 3 cases of MRSA in a short period of time, it was less likely that it was the fault of one client not properly caring for their tattoo.

That being said, it is prudent to recognize that the body art industry is still denigrated by a significant portion of the general population. Any connection between a MRSA case and a tattoo or piercing is an opportunity for those people to accuse the trade as a whole, which could lead to them punishing an individual to serve as an example.

So, it's a shared risk and a shared responsibility. If everyone does what they should, neither client nor artist should suffer any ill effects.

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