MRSA and Tattoos—How Big is the Risk?

Tattoo gun with needle in it
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In November of 2007, two unlicensed tattooers were brought up on criminal charges after three of their clients were infected with MRSA. Does that mean all tattoo artists risk transferring MRSA to their clients? Not necessarily, but it depends on the situation. The tattooers in question were unlicensed in a regulated state. The artist is to blame for not following proper licensing procedures required by the state, and not following the proper sanitary procedures.

Also, since there were three cases of MRSA in a short period of time, it was less likely that it was the fault of one client not properly caring for their tattoo.

After hearing this news, do you wonder what the risks are of getting a MRSA infection after getting a tattoo? This dreaded "superbug" is a cause for concern in many situations, from the gym to the medical office. MRSA is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a form of staph infection that can't be treated with the most common antibiotic used for such infections (methicillin.) Because it doesn't respond to the usual antibiotic, it can be near-impossible to treat. 

Potentially, anyone who gets a tattoo or piercing is a risk for contracting an infection – and yes, that includes MRSA. MRSA is a bigger threat in comparison to other infections because it’s easily spread and more difficult (but not impossible) to treat. In most cases, MRSA is more severe, and can even occasionally be fatal.

 

When getting a tattoo or piercing, the bacteria can be passed from the artist to the client, from a tool to the client, or even from the client to themselves. Since the MRSA bacteria can reside on the body of a carrier (known as a colonizer) without their knowledge and with no adverse effects to their own health, it’s possible for an artist to spread the infection to a client through skin or tool contact.

But if the client themselves are a colonizer, they can be infected with the bacteria from their own bodies once the skin has been broken for the tattoo or piercing.

That can sound pretty scary, but by following Universal Precautions, your artist can reduce your risk of exposure to infectious bacteria and bloodborne pathogens almost completely. Universal Precautions—which some tattoo artists refer to as a “sterile chain of events”—is a set of precautionary steps defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to prevent the spread of disease. Tattoo artists are required by law to follow Universal Precautions for the safety of themselves and their clients. Any artist found not following this sterile chain of events can have their licensing and/or certification revoked, and any studio found not following U.P. guidelines can be shut down. The basics include things like using gloves and other barriers on anything the artist comes in contact with, disinfecting all surfaces, and general cross-contamination prevention. When followed to the letter, your chances of being exposed to staph infection of any kind are very minimal.

We can't promise there is no risk, even if everything is done properly.

That can be a little disconcerting, but life is full of risks. You could just as easily get MRSA riding the New York City subway, or at your local gym. But those risks are minimal enough that we continue to live our lives, accepting the fact that freak accidents are still possible. Knowing that these risks exist should only make us more aware and more careful; not paranoid.

Client Responsibility and Reducing MRSA Risk

Your first responsibility as a patron of any tattoo or piercing establishment is full disclosure of any illness or medical conditions, as well as any medications you're currently taking. Don't leave something out just because you don't think it should affect getting tattooed or pierced, and do not avoid being honest with your artist because you think they might deny you. It's not worth losing your life, or risking other peoples' for a tattoo or piercing!

Even if your artist follows Universal Precautions and does everything possible to give you a clean and safe tattoo, your risk of infection doesn't end there. Your artist will provide you with aftercare instructions for your new tattoo or piercing, and the moment you walk out their door it becomes your responsibility, not theirs. An open wound is still vulnerable; until your tattoo or piercing is completely healed, your risk of exposure continues. It's important that you keep a very close eye on your tattoo during the healing process so that you notice anything suspicious right away. If you detect any signs of any kind of infection, go to the doctor immediately. Unfortunately, we are far beyond the days when you could try to treat a severe infection at home. Because of the MRSA threat, it's important that you have any significant infection examined by a doctor before it becomes life-threatening.

This all being said, it is prudent to recognize that the body art industry is still denigrated by a significant portion of the general population. Any connection between a MRSA case and a tattoo or piercing is an opportunity for those people to accuse the trade as a whole, which could lead to them punishing an individual to serve as an example. It's a shared risk and a shared responsibility—if everyone does what they should, neither client nor artist should suffer any ill effects.