The skin is the largest organ in the body, and its job is to protect the body from invaders. When a person has a tattoo, the needle breaks the skin’s barrier. In response, the skin begins its healing process. This healing process can result in itching, redness, swelling, and other symptoms as the skin repairs itself around the tattoo.
Most of the time, minor itching from a new tattoo will go away on its own. But if a person notices persistent itching or other symptoms on a new or old tattoo, they should see a doctor.
Is it normal for a tattoo to itch?
It is normal to experience mild itching after getting a tattoo. Because a tattoo involves breaking the skin, the body must repair the wound in the same way it would for a cut or scratch. While the skin is healing, itching will often occur. A person must be vigilant for the first few days or weeks after having a new tattoo to ensure proper healing. If other symptoms appear, or if the itching gets worse, it might be a sign of another problem.
After getting a tattoo, the skin will naturally begin to form scabs and heal. This can cause itching, which can irritate. Resist the urge to scratch, as this can cause more irritation and even lead to infection. Scratching may also remove scabs too early, which can result in scarring. Scratching could also interfere with the ink placement and distort the tattoo, ruining the artwork.
Continue to apply ointments or creams that the tattoo artist recommends. The itching should subside within 1–2 weeks. If the itching persists or gets worse, see a doctor.
Other factors that may cause a tattoo to itch include:
Getting a tattoo punctures the skin. To prevent bacteria or other invaders from entering the body, ensure that the tattoo artist uses sterile, single-use or sterilized, instruments. Using non-sterile instruments or ink can introduce bacteria or other organisms into the skin. The tattoo artist should also not mix non-sterile ingredients into the ink, such as tap water. All of these things can cause an infection. Ask the tattoo artist about their sterilization practices before agreeing to get a tattoo there.
Symptoms of an infection may include:
- redness that spreads and gets worse
- red streaks on the skin
- pain that does not get better
- red bumps that are itchy and painful
Without treatment, a tattoo infection could get worse and spread throughout the body. A person should see a doctor if they suspect they might have an infection after getting a tattoo.
Tattoo inks contain ingredients that can cause an allergic reaction in some people. Sometimes, this reaction can occur months or years after getting a tattoo. People tend to develop an allergy to a specific color of ink. While any color can cause an allergic reaction, the American Academy of Dermatology suggest red ink causes the most allergic reactions.
One study notes that red tattoo pigments may contain toxic metals, such as aluminum, iron, and calcium.
These metals could trigger allergic reactions, such as contact dermatitis. In some cases, medical procedures can also result in an allergic reaction, even in an old tattoo. Triggers may include joint replacement surgery or receiving treatment for HIV.
A mild allergic reaction can cause:
- pimple-like bumps
- crusting or flaking
- raised, scaly skin
- clear fluid coming from the tattoo
Sometimes a mild allergic reaction will go away on its own. If it does not get better within a few days, see a doctor. A severe allergic reaction can be life threatening.
Seek immediate medical care for the following symptoms:
- trouble breathing
- fast heart rate
- chest tightness
- severe swelling
Some people who have tattooed skin can develop an allergic reaction to sunlight. This can happen immediately after getting a tattoo or within a few hours.
An allergic reaction to the sun can cause:
- small, itchy bumps
Avoid directly exposing the tattoo to sunlight. After getting a tattoo, keep the bandage on for a few hours or the length of time that the tattoo artist advises. Then make sure to cover the tattoo with a clean bandage or with UPF-rated clothing any time you are in the sun.
When the tattoo has completely healed, apply a water resistant sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher every time you are outside. Ask the tattoo shop for sunscreen recommendations. Do not apply sunscreen until the tattoo artist says it is safe to do so.
Eczema is a condition that causes inflamed, red, itchy, or cracked skin. A variety of factors may trigger eczema, including allergies, dryness, or irritants, such as fragrances. Tattoos do not necessarily trigger eczema. However, eczema could flare up in the area of the tattoo months or even years later. People who have eczema may wish to speak with a doctor before getting a tattoo. They should also consider asking the tattoo artist about using inks for sensitive skin. The tattoo shop should provide aftercare instructions and an ointment for use during healing.
If eczema develops on or around a new tattoo, ask the tattoo artist about moisturizers that will not interfere with the new ink. Avoid products that have fragrances or alcohol, as these can make eczema worse.
If the symptoms do not improve within a few days, see a doctor.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy skin cells. This causes skin cells to renew too quickly, which often results in red, scaly patches on the skin. The scales from psoriasis are often itchy and painful. One of the known triggers of psoriasis is an injury to the skin. The National Psoriasis Foundation say even small injuries, such as a needle prick from a vaccine, can trigger psoriasis in some people. Because getting a tattoo involves the use of a needle to pierce the skin, it could trigger psoriasis to appear for the first time.
People who have a tattoo and have symptoms of psoriasis should see a doctor. Psoriasis is treatable with topical creams and other medications.
It is important to note that there is no evidence to suggest a direct link between a tattoo and skin cancer.
Therefore, the likelihood that an itchy tattoo is anything to do with skin cancer is extremely low. However, skin cancer can appear anywhere on the skin, including areas that have tattoos, and one symptom of skin cancer is an itchy, reddish patch on the skin.
If someone eliminates all other potential causes for an itchy tattoo, and if a person notices itching with changes to the skin in the area of a tattoo, they should see a doctor for a skin cancer check.
Treatment and when to see a doctor
Addressing the itch of a tattoo will depend on the cause. For instance, a person with eczema or psoriasis may need to see a doctor or healthcare provider to get treatment for these conditions. An allergic reaction may require immediate medical care to stop the body’s autoimmune response.
Following proper aftercare advice will help a new tattoo heal properly, which can help to eradicate itching.
To help alleviate an itch caused by the normal tattoo healing process, a person should:
- avoid scratching the tattoo
- never pick at scabs
- avoid the use of washcloths or scrubs on the area as it heals
- apply creams or ointments as recommended by their tattoo artist
- try keeping creams or ointments in the refrigerator, as the cooling may help with itching
- avoid using any irritating or harsh products on the tattoo
- keep the tattoo protected from the sun
- avoid bathing or swimming for the length of time the tattoo artist recommends
- take allergy medicines for a mild allergic reaction
If other symptoms appear or itching gets worse, it is a good idea to see a doctor or healthcare provider.
Visit a doctor or healthcare provider in cases of:
- itching worsening
- redness increasing in severity
- no improvement after a few weeks
- severe swelling
An itchy tattoo is a common occurrence, especially with new tattoos. The skin will naturally heal itself after injury, and a tattoo is no different. This healing process will usually cause itching.
Aside from the normal healing process, other possible causes for an itchy tattoo include eczema and an allergic reaction. People who experience an itchy tattoo should try to identify the cause of the itchy tattoo and treat it accordingly.
Usually, an itchy tattoo is nothing to worry about, but people should see a doctor if the itching gets worse, and other symptoms show no signs of improvement as the tattoo heals.
Medically reviewed by Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN
Written by Jennifer Berry
SOURCE: MEDICAL NEWS TODAY