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Color Me Yellow

Hepatitis and the Art of Tattoo

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Updated May 19, 2014

A tattoo artist doing a tattoo on someones back
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Tattoos are all the rage these days, with shows like LA Ink showing off tattoos and the tattoo culture. While tattoos allow you to express who you are in a permanent way, getting a tattoo carries a risk of developing an infection, especially if the tattoo artist doesn't use strict safety procedures.

Quick Review of Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C

Is There Really a Link?

Research from the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases showed that out of 3,871 people studied (half with hepatitis C and half without), there was a significant association between having one or more tattoos and having hepatitis C. In short, the study found that people with hepatitis C were about three times more likely to have tattoos. This study did not prove causality, but is suggestive of a link between having a tattoo and hepatitis infection.

How Can Tattoos Spread Hepatitis?

Getting a tattoo requires that your skin be pierced by a needle and injected with tiny amounts of ink. The bigger the tattoo, the more injections you'll need, and each injection brings the needle in to contact with your blood (and only once is needed to spread disease). This isn't a problem if that needle is kept isolated, but what happens if the artist already used your needle on someone else? Then you're now exposed to any microbes (bacteria, viruses) in that person's blood, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C and even HIV.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself?

Reusing dirty needles is an obvious safety violation, but it's not good enough to just find out if the artist uses clean needles. When you're dealing with injections and blood, you have to be aware of other potential hazards. For example:
  • Does the artist wash his or her hands? Though artists usually wear gloves (which you should make sure they do!), they must also wash their hands before putting gloves on and after taking them off. Make sure they only put on fresh pairs.
  • Is the equipment sterilized? Sterilized is different from being clean. By wiping over something with a towel, the instrument will look clean, but it could still be infectious. Sterilization involves applying chemicals or heat, killing bacteria and viruses.
  • Are work surfaces clean? Make sure the work area is cleaned and sterilized. You don't want your clean tattoo needle to be exposed to germs from the table surface or other equipment.

Sources:

Bini EJ, Dhalla S, Tenner T, Aytaman A, et. al. Strong Association Between Tattoos and Hepatitis C Virus Infection: A Multicenter Study of 3,871 Patients. 58th Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. Boston. November 2-6, 2007.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 21, 2008. Health and Safety of Tattoo Artists and Clients.

Healy, Bernadine. Flesh, Not Canvas: Self-Expression Through Body Art Has Its Drawbacks. U.S. News & World Report. February 2009.

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