If you’ve ever gotten a tattoo then you know the rules: keep your new art clean and covered because the skin is more susceptible to bacterial infections. 1 Each time the tattoo gun pierces your skin, the needle is technically opening a wound- a pathway for germs to enter the body (the larger the tattoo, the more you increase your risk of possible infection).
And with that rule, conventional wisdom says (the tattoo artist does, too) you shouldn’t soak it, either. That means no baths and NO SWIMMING. Especially in dirty water. Like a lake. Or even the ocean.
“A report published last week in BMJ Case Reports, a prominent peer-reviewed medical journal, reveals only that the subject was a Latino man living in Texas. In a typical case study, patients are referred to by their initials. In this case, what happened was so rare, the authors declined to provide even that, to prevent anyone from figuring out his identity. 2
(The man in question was 31 years old. The tattoo on his right leg, beneath an illustration of a cross and hands in prayer, were the words “Jesus is my life,” written in cursive.)

Five days after getting his tattoo, the man decided to go for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico. Just three days after that, he was admitted to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas with severe pain in both of his legs and feet. His symptoms included a fever, chills and redness around his tattoo and elsewhere on his legs.” 3

Dr. Nicholas Hendren, an internal medicine resident at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and lead author of the report reports that within a few hours, things got quite bad. “He was already in the early stages of septic shock, and his kidneys had already had some injury. Very quickly, his septic shock progressed from … early stages to severe stages very rapidly, within 12 hours or so, which is typical for this type of infection.” 4

Not helping the situation was the fact that the man had chronic liver disease from drinking six 12-ounce beers a day. He was immediately placed on a ventilator to help him breathe and given very strong antibiotics. 5 6
The man would later test positive for Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium commonly found in coastal ocean water. The CDC estimates that this infection, called vibriosis, causes 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths every year in the United States. Most infections occur from eating raw oysters along the Gulf Coast because nearly all oysters are reported to harbor V. vulnificus during the summer months. (The only way to kill the bacteria found in raw oysters is to cook them, therefore, people with liver disease or iron disorders should never eat raw oysters.) Normally, the only symptoms people experience are vomiting and diarrhea, and most healthy people don’t end up in the hospital because their immune system is strong enough to fight the infection.
The man was kept sedated for a couple of weeks and Hendren and his colleagues were hopeful. They removed him from the breathing machine 18 days after being admitted to the hospital and started “aggressive rehabilitation.” However, the next month his condition worsened and about two months after he was first admitted to the hospital, he died of septic shock.
The story isn’t meant to dissuade people from getting tattoos, but rather, remind you to remember that if you do decide to get one, make sure to go to a licensed establishment AND follow the rules for proper care.

Sources and References

  1. CNN, June 2017.
  2. BMJ Case Reports, May 2017.
  3. CNN, June 2017.
  4. CNN, June 2017.
  5. CNN, June 2017.
  6. BMJ Case Reports, May 2017.