Signs of an Infected Tattoo | Painful Pleasures Community

Signs of an Infected Tattoo

Learn all the signs of an infected tattoo so you can stop or prevent them altogether. This is your complete guide to healthy tattoo healing, aftercare, and infection prevention.
by Danny Tress Last Updated: April 24, 2024

It’s a given that getting tattooed and the healing process comes with a little discomfort. But do you know how to tell when average discomfort has turned into signs of a tattoo infection? Knowing the difference is key to treating infections as soon as possible. In this guide, we’ll cover the key indicators that your tattoo might be infected. You’ll understand how these symptoms differ from the normal healing process. Plus, we’ll give you the steps you need to take if you notice these symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of an Infected Tattoo

Zoomed out shot of a tattoo being treated with lotion

While you’re enjoying your new ink, remember to keep up with aftercare and watch out for the following infected tattoo signs:

Increased pain or tenderness:

Some tenderness, discomfort, and itching are all normal after a new tattoo. However, the pain should subside as your recovery progresses. So if you notice pain getting significantly worse over time, this could be a sign of infection. 

Redness and swelling:

Mild redness and swelling immediately after your new tattoo is expected. After all, your skin did just get poked repeatedly by needles. But if you notice persistent redness and swelling that intensify over time, it could indicate an infection taking hold. Remember: these symptoms should be getting better, not worse, after the first couple days.

Pus or discharge:

Yellow or greenish discharge seeping from your tattoo could clearly indicate infection. Pus or discharge suggests that your body is actively combating an infection, and it’s essential to address it promptly. Note: Lymph fluid, which is clear, is not the same as pus—it’s a normal part of the healing process.

Heat or warmth:

Touch the tattooed area gently. If it feels warmer than usual, it might result from increased blood flow as your body fights off an infection. This warmth is a potential red flag that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Fever or chills:

Symptoms like fever or chills are signs of a serious infection that may be spreading. If you experience these along with any other signs mentioned, it’s crucial to seek medical attention immediately.

Understanding How Tattoos Heal: Tattoo Healing Stages

Closeup of a bandage being peeled off a new tattoo

Week 1

Tattoos heal from the outside in. That means the top layers of skin will heal before the deeper dermal layers. As with any other cut or trauma to the skin, your body’s natural response to a new tattoo is to send additional oxygen-rich blood, collagen, and lymph fluid to the tattooed area. This promotes the regeneration of skin cells and fights off potential infection. This is why mild redness and swelling (the key word here being mild) and lymph fluid seepage aren’t cause for concern during the first week.

Weeks 2-3

After that first week of redness and oozing, you’ll hit what many call “the itchy phase.” During the itchy phase… well, you can obviously expect itchiness. But you can also expect some peeling for a week or two. This is totally normal.

Week 4 and Beyond

After the third week or so, your tattoo may look healed from the outside. However, the deeper layers will continue healing for a few more weeks (or months). With the outer layers of skin healed, you can likely ease up on your aftercare routine. Bear in mind the area may still be sensitive until the deeper layers of your skin fully heal.

Differentiating Between Normal Healing and Infection

Close-up of a client using tattoo lotion on their tattoo

You may have noticed some signs of infection sound frustratingly similar to normal healing – i.e. redness, swelling, fluid, and discomfort. The key here is to consider the progression and intensity of your symptoms. If all is going well, your pain, swelling, and secretion of lymph fluid should all get better after the first few days, not worse. Redness and swelling that start to spread outwards from the tattoo are cause for concern.

Also, it’s essential to recognize the difference between lymph fluid and pus. We touched on this above. Lymph fluid is typically clear or a translucent light yellow. It’s always odorless, and it dries to a clear to yellowish crust (aka “the crusties”). Pus, on the other hand, is usually opaque and off-white, yellow, or green. It usually appears thicker than lymph fluid, and it may have an odor. Pus is not a normal part of the process. Consequently, it should always be considered a sign of potential infection.

Finally, remember that fever, flu-like symptoms, and foul odors are sure signs of infection. These symptoms require medical treatment as soon as possible.

Seeking Medical Attention for an Infected Tattoo

If you suspect your tattoo might be infected, getting treatment right away is critical for preserving your new ink and protecting your health. Your primary care provider or a local urgent care should be able to prescribe antibiotics. This will usually be enough to clear up the infection within a few weeks. In the most extreme cases, IV antibiotics might be necessary, but this is usually only the case for those who ignore signs of infection for an extended period of time. Get help early!

Proper Aftercare to Avoid Infections

Group shot of Recovery Aftercare supplies on a white table

Prevention is always better than finding a cure after getting infected. So be sure to keep up with a proper aftercare routine to reduce your risk of infection! Your artist should give you detailed instructions. They’ll usually look something like this:

  • Gentle cleansing 2–3x daily for the first three weeks. Use a mild, fragrance-free soap to clean your tattoo gently. Pat the area dry with a clean, soft cloth. Avoid scrubbing.
  • Moisturize regularly with clean hands. Apply a thin layer of unscented, alcohol-free moisturizer to keep the tattooed area hydrated. Be consistent, but avoid over-saturation. A little goes a long way. Always wash your hands before touching the new tattoo.
  • Wear loose clothing. Opt for loose, breathable clothing to prevent causing friction and irritation or trapping sweat and bacteria against the new tattoo.
  • Hands off the tattoo! Let the scabs and peeling happen naturally; scratching and picking can lead to infection.
  • Avoid submerging your healing tattoo. Baths, pools, and hot tubs are all a no-go for the first few weeks after getting tattooed. All of them can introduce bacteria to your tattoo. Showers are fine (and encouraged). 

Final Thoughts on Identifying Tattoo Infections

Knowing how to tell when a tattoo is infected – and how these symptoms differ from the normal healing process– is critical. When you know what to look for, you can get medical help quickly if an infection occurs. This’ll save you and your new tattoo from more serious medical complications.  

And remember, one of the best ways to avoid a tattoo infection is to go to a professional. Professional tattoo artists who follow best practices for infection prevention will tattoo you as safely as possible. If you’re an artist, Ultimate Tattoo Supply has all of the medical, infectious control, and aftercare supplies you need to keep you and your clients safe.

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