Warning Signs of an Infected Tattoo and How to Treat It

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Warning Signs of an Infected Tattoo and How to Treat It

After going through the pain and discomfort of getting a tattoo, the last thing you want is for the tattoo to become infected. Unfortunately, infected tattoos are quite common, especially in the first few days after getting a tattoo. Germs, bacteria, or unhygienic equipment can all cause skin infections in and around the tattoo site.

After getting a tattoo, the tattoo artist should provide a list of instructions of after-care to prevent any skin infection. However, signs that a tattoo has become infected are itchiness, redness, swelling and maybe pus around the wound. In these cases, you should visit your doctor to assess the seriousness of the infected skin. Bacteria in infected skin wounds can spread quickly and cause complications ranging from a mild itchy skin rash to permanent scarring. Diseases like herpes, syphilis, and hepatitis can also be transmitted through infected needles.


This article looks at the various causes of tattoo infections and what you can do to prevent them. You will also find natural treatments for infected tattoos. These home remedies are useful in treating cases of mild tattoo infections and help prevent any infection from spreading. Some useful home treatments for skin infections that contain antibacterial and soothing properties are coconut oil, honey, calendula cream, and aloe vera.

Causes of Infected Tattoos

Over the last few years getting a tattoo has become more and more popular. It is estimated that as many as one in four persons in the U.S. has a tattoo. With the increase in popularity of tattoos, there has also been a reported increase in cases of infected tattoos. The Langone Medical Center reports that as many as 6% of people who get a tattoo experience tattoo-related skin infections.1

There are various reasons why tattoos can become infected. According to doctors at the Mayo Clinic, some complications of tattoos are:2

  • A skin infection caused by bacteria getting into the punctured skin. This could be due to improper aftercare or exposing the skin to unsanitary conditions.
  • Using contaminated equipment that transmits blood-borne diseases like hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
  • Bacterial infection from contaminated ink that can cause serious infections.
  • Bumps on your skin called granulomas can form around pierced areas. These can become infected and bleed easily.

Dr. Sabrina Felson on WebMD says that red bumpy itchy skin along with swelling around the tattoo area may not be an infection at all but an allergic reaction to the tattoo. This condition called sarcoidosis and can show up months or even years after getting the tattoo.3

Symptoms of Infected Tattoos

Tattoos are made by tiny needles puncturing the skin and leaving a drop of ink there. Therefore, it’s only natural that you will have some inflammation, pain, and even some bleeding for a few days after the tattoo.

However, if your tattoo is still inflamed and itchy after a few days, it may be because the tattoo is infected with a Staphylococcus (or just staph) bacteria. Some common symptoms of an infected tattoo are:


Itching around the tattoo that continues a few days after you have the tattoo could be a sign of a bacterial infection. The Department of Health in New York says that skin sores caused by an infection are often itchy and cause discomfort.4

Painful and tender to touch

The skin area around the tattoo will almost certainly be painful and tender to touch if it has become infected. Dr. Melissa Conrad Stöppler on MedicineNet.com says that infected skin will cause the skin to become red, swollen and painful.5


Discharge is a sign that the tattoo site is infected and requires medical attention to stop the infection. Dr. Debra Jaliman on WebMD says that skin infections from infected tattoos cause pus-like drainage to ooze from the tattoo.6

If you develop a fever or you notice red streaks from the infected tattoo, you should call a doctor immediately. This could be a sign that the infection has entered your blood stream and caused blood poisoning.

How to Treat an Infected Tattoo

To prevent an infected tattoo from developing into a serious infection, it’s important to treat the first signs of a skin infection. At the end of the article, you can find some practical advice on how to prevent tattoo infections.

Cold pack

One of the best ways to reduce inflammation and numb the pain of a new tattoo is to apply a cold pack. Ice helps to soothe pain and reduce any swelling around the irritated skin.

Doctors from WebMD also recommend applying an ice pack to care for your tattoo. They say that the remedy helps to bring down swelling, itching, and prevent bruising on your skin.7

How to use:

To help soothe discomfort around an itchy infected tattoo in the first few days, this is what you should do:

  • Place some ice cubes in a plastic bag and wrap in a clean thin towel.
  • Apply to the infected skin at the tattoo site and hold for 10 minutes.
  • Remove for 5 minutes and reapply to the affected skin.
  • Do this 2-3 times a day to help speed up the healing process and reduce pain around the tattoo.

Remember, never place ice directly on your skin because it could damage your skin and irritate the tattoo even more. Also, the cold pack is useful to help relieve the pain of infections in the first few days after getting a tattoo. If pain, inflammation, redness, and swelling continues, you should visit your doctor.

Coconut oil

Virgin Coconut oil contains natural healing properties that are great for treating skin infections such as infected tattoo. The antibacterial properties in coconut oil are useful for killing off infection-causing germs. The soothing effect of coconut oil also provides a protective barrier to prevent further infection.

The journal Dermatitis has published various studies showing the effectiveness of coconut oil in helping repair damaged skin. For example, in 2004 Dermatitis reported that coconut oil is as effective as mineral oil to moisturize and protect the skin.8 Other studies into the medicinal effect of coconut oil have found that it can help to destroy bacteria, especially Staphylococcus bacteria strains.9

How to use:

To use coconut oil to help kill off skin infections and reduce swelling in the early stages of a tattoo infection, you should do the following:

  • Apply a thin layer of virgin coconut oil to the infected tattoo. The coconut oil will help to soothe the pain and the itchy skin and destroy bacteria.
  • Continue applying the coconut oil remedy to get relief from an itchy tattoo infection. Use until all redness, swelling, and pus from your skin infection have gone.

You can boost the antibacterial properties of coconut oil by adding 2-3 drops of tea tree oil to every tablespoon of coconut oil. Just be aware that you should not apply tea tree oil on a broken skin.

Some dermatologists recommend covering the infected tattoo with petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline. However, please read my article on why you should stop using petroleum jelly for skincare to find out why coconut oil is far superior to petroleum jelly.


Honey is another natural product with powerful antimicrobial properties that are great for healing skin wounds such as infected tattoo. Honey can be applied directly to the infected skin around the tattoo to help boost the healing process.


According to the Indian Journal of Plastic Surgery, honey has been used for centuries for wound healing. The researchers found that honey contains natural antibacterial properties like hydrogen peroxide and is acidic – these properties help to kill off germs. The benefits of honey for wound healing are that it keeps the wound moist, helps repair damaged tissue, disinfects the wound, and reduces pain.10

Although any kind of raw, unprocessed honey can be used to treat an infected tattoo, Manuka honey is the best kind. In my article on the many uses and health benefits of Manuka honey, you can read why this is the perfect choice for treating skin wounds.

How to use:

To heal an infected tattoo and soothe the pain and discomfort the infection causes, you should do this:

  • Gently apply a thin layer of Manuka honey to the infected tattoo site and cover with a clean gauze.
  • Change the dressing daily and use until all signs of the tattoo infection have gone completely.

Aloe vera

You can use the healing power of pure aloe vera gel to soothe and treat a mild tattoo skin infection. Aloe vera contains many vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that have skin-healing properties. Aloe vera gel also helps to repair damaged skin tissue to prevent scars from forming.

The journal Advances in Dermatology and Allergology reported that aloe vera is an effective natural treatment to reduce skin inflammation. The soothing effect of aloe vera on red itchy skin helps to remove discomfort and the urge to scratch. The journal also reported that aloe vera is an effective antibacterial agent against skin staph infections.11

According to the journal Dermatology and Therapy, aloe vera preparations help to prevent scarring after surgery.12

How to use:

You can use pure aloe vera gel to take the redness, swelling, itching, heat, and pain out of an infected tattoo. All you have to do is the following:

  • Apply pure aloe vera gel directly onto the infected tattoo.
  • If you want, you can cover the infected skin with a clean gauze or bandage.
  • Apply the aloe vera remedy 3-4 times a day to soothe the itchy, inflamed skin around the tattoo and help the wound infection heal quicker.
  • Continue to use aloe vera on your tattoo infection until any redness, swelling, and itchiness has gone completely.

Calendula cream

Calendula, or pot marigold, is an effective topical treatment to help wounds such as infected tattoos heal quicker. Extracts from calendula contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that assist in wound healing naturally. Calendula cream also provides a protective barrier over the infected tattoo to help reduce the possibility of further infection.

The journal Wounds confirmed the wound-healing properties of calendula that makes it an effective natural remedy for tattoo infections. For example, in clinical trials, calendula cream helped wounds heal quicker and increase the skin’s production of collagen. There is also evidence that calendula helps to reduce pain associated with infected skin and prevents bacteria from spreading.13

How to use:

The best way to use calendula to treat tattoo infections or any other kind of wound is to buy calendula cream. You should apply the cream 2-3 times a day to the infected tattoo site as directed on the packaging.

For more information on how to prevent scarring, please read my article on the best essential oils for getting rid of scars.

Precautions to Avoid Tattoo Infections

To prevent any kind of tattoo or body piercing infection, it’s important to properly care for the damaged skin to prevent a skin infection.

Usually, a reputable tattoo salon will provide detailed instructions on how to prevent infections from getting into tattoo wounds. Most recommend that after you have got your tattoo you should do the following to prevent infections:

  • Keep the skin covered for 1-2 hours after getting the tattoo done.
  • Air helps to speed up the healing process, so allow the wound to breathe as much as possible.
  • Don’t go swimming for 6-8 weeks after the tattoo and stay out of the sun.
  • Don’t use alcohol products around the affected skin area to prevent the skin getting irritated.

Doctors from Harvard Medical School recommend the following after-care to keep the tattoo site clean and free from infections:14

  • Always wash your hands with soap before touching the new tattoo or changing dressings.
  • Wash the tattooed skin with antibacterial soap and pat dry. Patting dry avoids irritating the punctured skin even more.
  • Apply a protective ointment (we recommend virgin coconut oil) to the affected skin.
  • Wash, dry, and moisturize the tattoo 3 to 4 times a day.
  • Never rub, pick, or scratch the tattoo until it is fully healed.

Infected Tattoo – When to See a Doctor

A bacterial skin infection can spread very quickly and can even become a life-threatening medical condition.

Dr. William Blahd on WebMD recommends calling your doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms after getting a tattoo done:15

  • Your symptoms don’t improve after 2 weeks of using home remedies.
  • Your skin becomes infected and inflamed.
  • You develop an allergic reaction (this can happen even months after getting the tattoo).
  • Your symptoms become severe or more frequent.

Read these related articles:

Article Sources:
  1. MedicalNewsToday. Tattoos may cause years of infection, itching and swelling.
  2. MayoClinic. Tattoos: Understand risks and precautions
  3. WebMD. My tattoo has problems.
  4. HealthNY. Bacterial skin infections.
  5. MedicineNet. Staph infection.
  6. WebMD. Slideshow. When tattoos go bad.
  7. WebMD. Tattoo problems – home treatment.
  8. Dermatitis. 2004 Sep;15(3):109-16.
  9. Dermatitis. 2008 Nov-Dec;19(6):308-15.
  10. Indian J Plast Surg. 2012 May-Aug; 45(2): 418–424.
  11. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2013 Jun; 30(3): 170–177.
  12. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2014 Dec; 4(2): 187–195.
  13. Wounds. Calendula officinalis and wound healing.
  14. HealthHarvard. Tattoos and infections.
  15. WebMD. Tattoo problems – home treatments.
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2 Responses to Warning Signs of an Infected Tattoo and How to Treat It

  1. Ann says:

    I have an infected tattoo. It is swollen red and has pie around and in it. I have visited the doctor already an have Horton antibiotics an am also using an antibacterial cream to. I just wanted to know if I can use aloes on it to help heal it also?

    • Jenny Hills, Medical Writer and Researcher says:

      I believe that finishing the course of antibiotics the doctor gave you along with the antibacterial cream will do the job so you will not need the aloe vera.

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