FDA Warns About Tattoo Infections

A recent outbreak of illnesses linked to contaminated tattoo inks has prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue a new warning about the safety of this practice.

According to an FDA bulletin, health experts are particularly concerned about a family of bacteria called nontuberculous Mycobacteria(NTM) that has been found in at least four states where contaminated ink was in use in tattoo parlors.

An NTM infection typically appears as a rash or raised red bumps that form in a tattooed area within a few weeks of receiving a tattoo. This infection can be difficult to diagnose because of how easily it is mistaken for an allergic reaction. However, it can do a lot more harm than just cause a rash.NTM has also been known to cause lung disease, joint infection, eye problems, and other organ infections, and can require treatment lasting six months or more.

The problem appears to be in the ink and the pigments used to color them which can become contaminated by bacteria, mold and fungi. Ink contamination is not always visible so even parlors that follow strict hygienic practices may not be able to avoid contaminating their clients.

The initial investigation began in January 2012 when the FDA, through its MedWatch reporting program, learned about seven people in Monroe County, New York who had NTM infections. All had received tattoos from the same artist, who used the same brand of ink on all of them.

The FDA later learned of 12 more people who had an NTM infection who were also clients of this same tattoo artist and the same ink. Of these 19 people, 14 were confirmed to have the same type of NTM infection.

FDA investigators visited the tattoo ink supplier and manufacturer, which were located in California, and the result was a recall of the implicated ink. 

Meanwhile, outbreaks began to occur in other states, including Washington, Iowa, and Colorado. These cases involved different NTM species or different ink manufacturers than those in New York. While the infections in Washington, Iowa, and Colorado were not linked to the New York infections, there was a link identified between the infections in Washington and Iowa.

Tattoo artists are being encouraged to minimize the risk of infection by using inks that have been formulated to ensure that they are free from disease-causing bacteria. They’re also being asked to avoid the use of tap, bottled, filtered or distilled water to dilute inks or wash the skin. Only sterile water should be used.

Recipients of tattoos should also be aware that the ointments often provided by tattoo parlors are not effective against NTM infections.

Anyone who experiences a red rash with swelling and possibly accompanied by itching or pain in the tattooed area within 2-3 weeks of receiving a tattoo, they are urged to call their health care professional and to report the problem to MedWatch at 1-800-332-1088.

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