HIV, hepatitis B and C and other infectious diseases can be passed from one person to another while having a tattoo done, through body piercing, or during any other procedure where the skin is penetrated, if the instruments used have not been thoroughly sterilized or disinfected.
The ideal situation would be to use only sterile, single-use disposable instruments, handled by properly trained personnel wearing appropriate clothing and sterile gloves during the procedures.
A clean and frequently sanitized environment is also desirable. This is what we expect and find in a medical setting, but, of course, this is not what we would find at most tattoo shops because they are not properly regulated or supervised, leaving up to the owners to setup their own routines and procedures.
Tattoo shops operators do not generally work in a clean environment, wear clean clothing, face masks, or sterile gloves. Even when some of them do use disposable instruments, just by talking and touching a variety of objects while actually doing a tattoo, practically guarantee contaminating their customers’ skin, which in essence has hundreds of tiny open wounds caused by the tattooing needles …
A relative minor complication occurring after receiving a tattoo or having a body part pierced could be a superficial skin infection [impetigo], caused by bacteria and other germs. If untreated, impetigo may resolve in a few days or progress to a more serious situation affecting deeper tissues, with eventual formation of an abscess, a situation that requires medical treatment and which often causes scarring. This outcome usually may have lasting psychological effects when the affected areas are the nose, lips, ear lobes, etc.
Viral infections such as HIV, hepatitis B and C do have serious and often fatal complications. Unfortunately, HIV infections are on the rise in the US population, due to many causes. One of them being the false sense of security brought about by the creation of effective treatments applied in the past few years.
Hepatitis B may lead to liver cancer while hepatitis C, although more controllable, may cause serious health complications. Both may eventually lead to liver failure and eventual transplantation.
By Alice M. Crawford, MD, PhD