Two San Diego residents who recently got tattoos were diagnosed with infections caused by a family of bacteria called nontuberculous Mycobacterium (NTM) – the first cases of this kind detected in San Diego, according to county health officials.
The County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) said both San Diegans required medical care due to their infections.
NTM has been found in contaminated tattoo ink and in the water used to dilute ink to create gray areas of a tattoo. Contamination can also happen when the tattoo needle is rinsed between colors.
Health officials said infection can occur because the area being tattooed creates an "open surface on the skin through which bacteria can easily enter the body."
NTM infections can cause itchy, red bumps that can progress to abscesses a few days or weeks after getting a tattoo. Health officials said the infections may require the use of multiple antibiotics for up to six months and can cause permanent scarring even after treatment.
According to health officials, clusters of these types of NTM infection cases have been reported throughout the U.S., but never in San Diego until now.
Though in most cases getting a tattoo is safe, county public health officer Wilma Wooten, M.D., M.P.H., said people should “be aware of the potential for these types of infections before getting a tattoo.”
Although both the State of California and the County of San Diego have regulations governing tattoo shops to ensure safe practices are in place, health officials said consumers should still be aware of potential health risks, and know what to look for in a tattoo shop.
This includes making sure the tattoo artist is registered and the shop has a permit from the County Department of Environmental Health (DEH). Also, consumers should ask any and all questions about hygiene and the tattooing process prior to the ink work and request inks and colors specifically made for tattooing.
After getting a tattoo, consumers should monitor the inked area for signs of an infection, including redness, heat, swelling or pus around the tattoo.
If any of these signs of an infection develop, one should promptly seek medical care and call the tattoo artist. In addition, health officials said consumers should report a tattoo-related infection to the DEH Epidemiology Liaison at (858) 505-6814 or Epidemiology.FHD@sdcounty.ca.gov.
As for these two cases in San Diego, the DEH and HHSA are working together with state and federal health officials to further investigate the causes of the infections.
County health officials did not release the name of the tattoo shops where these customers contracted the infection.