Can You Get Bloodborne Pathogens from Tattoos?Greg Garner
It’s common to have an adverse skin reaction after getting a tattoo. Many see it as a small, temporary price to pay for the emotional and social benefits of permanent body art.
Sometimes, complications from tattoos go beyond the skin. In these cases, you may contract bloodborne pathogens that cause severe, long-lasting health issues.
Professional artists in tattoo parlors undergo training to reduce the risk, but there are still cases of exposure. If you are considering your next tattoo, this article will explain how you can contract bloodborne pathogens so that you can take the necessary precautions.
What Are Bloodborne Pathogens?
A bloodborne pathogen is a harmful microorganism such as a bacteria or virus. It’s transmitted between people through infected blood or other bodily fluids.
Diseases from bloodborne pathogens can be debilitating, difficult to treat, and even fatal. Although there is a wide array of bloodborne pathogens, three viruses are commonly linked to tattoos — HIV, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is an incurable virus that weakens the immune system. If left untreated, HIV can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which can result in death in only a few years.
Fortunately, advancements in medicine have made HIV easy to manage. Individuals can now use antiretroviral therapy to help them live full lives with few symptoms. The treatment also keeps them safe from passing HIV on to sexual partners.
You need to take an HIV test to know for certain if you have HIV. Warning signs and symptoms are different from one individual to the next, but people with HIV often have flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks. It’s important to schedule a test with a health care provider if you do experience symptoms after getting a tattoo.
Like HIV, some individuals may live several years with Hepatitis B without showing symptoms. Hepatitis B is a liver infection that can lead to liver cancer if left untreated.
Because it affects the liver, jaundice is common, wherein your skin and eyes take on a yellow tone. Other symptoms include appetite loss, lethargy, stomach pain, aching joints, and darkened urine. These symptoms may be mild or non-existent for some people with the disease.
Hepatitis B is preventable through vaccination. Nowadays, it’s commonly a multi-step series of shots that infants receive as part of their normal doctor’s visits.
Hepatitis C also attacks the liver, causing serious inflammation and damage including cirrhosis. The disease can progress for several years before you notice any physical problems. When they do show up, symptoms are like those of Hepatitis B, as well as:
- Bleeding and bruising easily
- Swollen legs
- Confusion and slurred speech
Following an acute phase that starts a few months after exposure, hepatitis C can go chronic. However, because symptoms may not show up for years, the CDC recommends that adults get tested at least once. Fortunately, if it’s detected early enough, oral antiviral medications can clear the virus from your body in as little as eight to 12 weeks.
How Do You Contract Bloodborne Pathogens From Tattoos?
Needlestick injuries are the primary concern when it comes to transmitting bloodborne pathogens. Drug users have a higher risk of disease, and health care workers must take extra precautions when working with needles.
The same is true for tattoo artists. They use a hand-held tattoo machine, which has a needle (or needles) to puncture the top layer of the skin (the epidermis) and inject ink into the next layer, the dermis. The needle moves in and out of your skin rapidly, similar to a sewing machine action, hitting your skin anywhere from 50 to 3,000 times each minute.
The needle forces tiny droplets of ink into the dermis with each impact. The dermis is full of nerves, glands, and blood vessels. Not only does it hurt, but it also makes you bleed.
Contaminated equipment can spread bloodborne pathogens. Your tattoo is an open wound, and there is little interference if a bloodborne pathogen is present in the ink, needle, or another piece of equipment. Any bodily fluid that makes contact with a tattoo can also potentially spread a bloodborne pathogen.
Risk of Transmission from Tattoo Needles
Despite the risks, the possibility of becoming infected by blood-borne diseases while getting a tattoo is lower than other needlestick injuries. A tattoo needle is not like a syringe, where a vessel contains the liquid and injects it.
Instead, the tattoo needle is dipped into ink, so the ink rests on the exterior, exposing it to air. When you get punctured, the needle pushes the ink into your dermis.
This is significant because it greatly reduces how long HIV stays active. When it’s exposed to air, the virus is mostly inactive after only a few hours. To create a serious hazard, the infected person who could possibly transmit it must have an incredibly high viral load or the equipment must be highly contaminated.
Many STDs that are concerning in tattoo contexts do not last long outside the body. Bacteria that cause syphilis, for example, die within minutes outside the human body, so there is little risk of getting the disease during a tattoo.
Hepatitis B and C, unlike HIV, can easily infect someone getting a tattoo if the artist is not following the correct procedures. Both can live outside the body for six to seven weeks. A 2013 study by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases found that a significantly higher risk of hepatitis C transmission existed if a person had at least one tattoo.
How to Stay Safe from Bloodborne Pathogens
You and your artist must follow safety procedures before, during, and after the tattooing process. The most important aspect of this is working with a certified professional tattoo artist. Amateur tattooists using home tattoo kits are at a much greater risk of spreading bloodborne pathogens than professionals, primarily due to training and government regulations.
Because they come into contact with blood in their work, tattoo artists need to be certified to perform the service. At a federal level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets standards for bloodborne pathogen training for all states. There are 28 states that use their own OSHA-approved requirements.
Certification programs are available through various providers, often businesses in the health care field, for a fee. Courses consist of training followed by a certification exam.
You can perform the training in person, but online BBP training programs are offered for affordable and convenient certification. To maintain their certifications, tattooists need to retake the training every year.
Working with a certified artist is the most effective way to stay safe from bloodborne pathogens. There is still room for error with professionals, so use the following tips to make sure you minimize the risk of infection.
Look at Google, Facebook, and other review sources to compare tattoo artists in your area. You can see how comfortable other customers felt during their experience and find any recurring issues. If you visit their website, you can also get a sense of their professionalism and check their credentials.
Check What PPE They Use
Make sure your tattooist washes their hands and other potentially exposed body parts to reduce the risk of spreading bloodborne pathogens. They should do this before and after putting on nitrile or latex gloves.
Along with gloves, tattoo artists should also wear face masks and eye protection such as face shields or goggles. Exposed body parts should be limited as much as possible, and the tattooist should be wearing clean clothing. Tattooists need to be disciplined in both using the correct PPE and putting it on properly.
The tattooist should also throw away anything that they can’t sterilize, such as paper towels and gloves. Needles should go in a proper sharps container. It needs to be covered, protected against leaks, and labeled with appropriate biohazard signs.
If the artist gets any blood on them, they need to wash the affected body part immediately. Any torn or damaged PPE needs to replacement as well.
Ensure They Sterilize Equipment
A safe tattoo artist will use industrial cleaning supplies to disinfect their equipment. They should sanitize all surfaces and non-disposable tools.
The tattooist should also use an autoclave to sanitize their tattoo machine. An autoclave is a heat sanitizer used in medical fields. If you are uncertain about their disinfecting practices, ask them about their procedures.
The tattooist should also not reuse equipment between customers. You should be able to see them remove cleaned equipment from the autoclave. They should never reuse ink, ink cups, needles, or disposable PPE.
Stay Aware of Bloodborne Pathogens
Most professional tattoo artists are responsible when it comes to cleaning and disinfecting. If you’re still worried after getting a tattoo, get a blood test to know for sure. Hepatitis and other bloodborne diseases may go years before showing symptoms, and it is crucial to treat them as early as possible.
If you would like to know more about bloodborne pathogens and effective prevention strategies, follow our blog.