These Needles Can Cause Unexpected Pain - Mountain News : Editorials

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These Needles Can Cause Unexpected Pain

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Posted: Thursday, June 18, 2015 12:00 am

For increasing numbers of Americans—experts say it’s now about 25 percent who have them—tattoos have become an accepted part of daily life, declaring as they do an individual’s allegiance to a lover, a belief system or even a sports team.

Tattoos depicting everything from political statements to designs honoring family members are common sights throughout the mountain communities, on young and old alike.

But the practice of having a skillful artist inject colored ink below the skin may have consequences extending well beyond future embarrassment over changes in romantic partners or other of life’s vicissitudes. According to a new study by the medical center at New York University, about 10 percent of tattoo recipients will experience something they hadn’t counted on—a severe, continuing skin reaction.

Published in late May, the study involved 300 tattooed New Yorkers, ranging age from 18 to 69. Most had no more than five tattoos, and two-thirds of the tattoos were on their arms.

Marie C. Leger, a physician and Ph.D. who was one of the study’s leaders, reported that, while complications like infections are common with tattoos, many of the problems they encountered when surveying respondents dealt not with the artist or the policies of the tattoo parlor, but with the ink used and how the body’s immune system reacted to it. The longest-lasting complications among those reported involved ink in shades of red and black.

Of all the practices and products heavily regulated by one level of government or another in the United States, what goes into the skin of a tattoo recipient is shockingly low on that list. In some areas, there is no regulation at all, experts explain.

Jeremy A. Brauer, a medical doctor who directs clinical research at the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of New York, expanded on the NYU findings, saying he has seen patients whose reactions to being tattooed involved contact dermatitis, whose symptoms include redness, swelling and itching.

Dr. Leger says she plans a subsequent survey to determine what components in tattoo dye are most likely to cause adverse reactions.

A warning issued last year by the federal Food and Drug Administration suggested that the NYU findings were on the right track. The FDA cautioned tattoo parlors, their customers and people who purchase at-home tattoo kits that not all ink is safe. One California company reported having recalled inks in its in-home kits after tests confirmed bacterial contamination in unopened bottles.

Tattooing has been linked also with hepatitis, staph infections and even MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), a contagious staph bacteria that causes several difficult-to-treat infections in humans, Both dirty needles and unsanitary parlor conditions have been blamed as well.

But even sterile environments may not offer protection. Inks, the FDA says, can carry bacteria that spread through the bloodstream, a process known as sepsis. It can cause shaking chills and sweats and fever, and carries a particularly high risk for people with pre-existing heart or circulatory problems.

To top it off, the FDA says it has received reports of reactions to tattoo inks cropping up years later, and not just right after the ink is applied.

Given the swing in the cultural mindset that now widely embraces tattoos, urging people to stop accumulating body art because of potential bad reactions is likely a losing battle, and we don’t choose to fight it. But given what the NYU study adds to what dermatologists already knew about tattoos, some caution is definitely in order before subjecting oneself to the artist’s needle.

After all, a little research and a little knowledge could head off an unpredictable period of suffering and, unless pain is your pleasure, consider what the experts say to be a word to the wise.

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