WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF TATTOOS?

Tattoos have been around forever with the earliest evidence of tattooing dating back to 3000 BC! This is fascinating when you think about it – because a tattoo is basically a deposition of pigment or colored ink under the skin using needles. The tattoo artist uses a hand-held machine (almost like a sewing machine) and each puncture of the skin inserts pigment under the skin.

HOW DID TATTOOS BECOME SUCH A SIGNIFICANT PART OF OUR CULTURE?

We’ve definitely seen an increase in the popularity of tattoos because of dramatic shift from a show of social defiance to an acceptable display of self-expression and an art form. Tattooing has become mainstream. 24% of Americans from the ages of 18-60 have at least one tattoo. That’s a long way from the late 50’s when tattoos really started to appear in Western culture. Clearly, tattoos aren’t just for bikers and sailors any longer! Just watch an NBA or NFL game!

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE RISKS AND SIDE AFFECTS OF TATTOOS?

All of the risks and side effects associated with tattoos are related to the introduction of the pigment (ink) under the skin. Adverse reactions can stem from the simple process of puncturing the skin and introducing the pigment with a needle.

This disrupts the integrity of the skin and can give a portal of entry to bacteria; resulting in allergic reactions; skin infections, the transmission of infectious diseases, along with immunological reactions and hepatitis. The most common complications are pain and itching.

The risk has been significantly reduced because of better health standards that mandate disposable needles and using fresh ink for each tattoo. State authorities oversee tattoo practices and vary locally – so check your state’s guidelines.

CAN TATTOOS CAUSE CANCER?

Recently, research has begun on the long-term effects of tattoos for a number of reasons: Inks can contain harmful ingredients because they are not regulated by the FDA (They considers inks to be cosmetic), therefore, there is no oversight.

Some tattoo inks are made from heavy metals. For example, reds can be made from mercury; yellows and greens from lead; whites from titanium dioxide. These metals have been linked to health issues including cancer. Other inks are made with the same ingredients found in printer ink and car paint!

Recent studies have discovered that ink injected by tattoo needles containing hazardous substances does not stay localized but travels to other parts of the body.

Tattoo ink has been found in the other parts of the skin, around blood vessels and in lymph nodes. We don’t know what that means long-term.  So as far as tattoos causing cancer, the jury is still out about the long-term effects – but you should be aware of this when you decide to get a tattoo.

THERE WAS A STORY IN THE NEWS RECENTLY ABOUT A MAN DYING AFTER SWIMMING WITH A NEW TATTOO. WHAT ARE SOME RULES TO FOLLOW AFTER GETTING TATTED?

Yes, and this was an avoidable tragedy. What seems to have occurred was the young man went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico 5 days after getting a tattoo. Remember, the insertion of the needle disrupts the integrity of the skin and can give a way of entry of bacteria.

In an open body of water, this young man was infected with a vibrio vulnificus which is a bacterium that lives in warm brackish seawater. It’s normally harmless because unbroken skin protects us – but with a new tattoo, bacteria can enter the body and cause a local infection. In this case, the infection became overwhelming  causing sepsis and death. That’s why is it very important to follow instructions carefully after the procedure to avoid complications.

IS IT TRUE THAT IF YOU HAVE A TATTOO, YOU CANNOT DONATE OR TRANSFER BLOOD?

Great question. You must wait 12 months after getting a tattoo if the tattoo was applied in a state that does not regulate tattoo facilities. This requirement is related to concerns about hepatitis. A tattoo is acceptable if the tattoo was applied by a state-regulated entity following state guidelines. For blood transfusions, check with your local hospital and when donating blood, discuss your tattoo history with the health historian at the time of donation.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE RISKS OF GETTING A TATTOO REMOVED?

One of the most common tattoo complications is REGRET! So, make sure you want a tattoo, choose it carefully, have no regrets and hopefully don’t get to this point. But if you do – the good news is, tattoos can be removed by a laser treatment. It usually takes multiple treatments and sometimes can result in scarring.

Covering a tattoo with another bad version is no longer necessary! Tattoo-removal technology has greatly improved, but it can be painful and sometimes takes multiple treatments. But as always, find a reputable dermatologist in your area to do the procedure.

Tattoos can be an awesome way for a person to express themselves, however precautions should be taken.

Read on for Dr. Heidelberg’s answers your Text Tom questions on the next page.

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