Getting a tattoo when travelling – because it’s cheaper, you want to mark an important moment, or simply to have a souvenir of a fantastic trip – requires some thought. Diarrhoea, tropical diseases and sunburn are the health risks we generally associate with travelling, but getting tattoos and piercings abroad also carries risks. In my role as a doctor at KLM Health Services, I’m regularly asked about these risks. It’s important you bear the following points in mind
Apart from the obvious risk that a tattoo doesn’t turn out as you expected, or that you regret your decision, there are also significant medical risks associated with having tattoos or piercings done abroad. The following factors are important:
Your entire physical and mental condition affects your experience
Make sure you are rested and haven’t consumed alcohol or drugs in the 24 hours prior to getting a tattoo. These can increase the chance of bleeding and slow down the healing process.
You mustn’t swim or sunbathe with a new tattoo
Remember, a tattoo always needs aftercare, wherever you are. To avoid complications, the tattoo mustn’t get dirty or wet in the first few weeks of being applied. It’s also best to avoid direct sunlight. These factors could easily impact on your holiday plans.
The quality of the materials used
The use of inferior-quality ink can lead to irritation or allergic reactions. If the ink has been diluted with unclean water, it can lead to skin infections. A lot information about the quality of different brands of tattoo ink is available in online reviews.
Are the work surfaces cleaned with cleaning products? Does the person performing the tattoo or piercing have clean hands? Are disposable materials used wherever possible? Dirty needles can cause skin infections, leading to fever, pain, hospitalisation and, in the worst cases, infection, blood poisoning, or scarring.
There’s always a risk of infection, not only in tropical regions. This isn’t so much to do with the climate, as levels of hygiene. In the Netherlands, tattoo shops are thoroughly inspected and there are strict regulations that have to be adhered to. This is not always the case in other countries. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to be extra careful about having tattoos done in countries where there’s an increased risk of food poisoning. Ask your travel advisor for advice when you get your vaccinations before travelling.
A small, but not insignificant risk of hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV infection should always be taken into account.
These viruses are far more common in other countries than in the Netherlands and the risk of infection is increased by the use of dirty needles. You can be vaccinated against hepatitis B, but not against hepatitis C, HIV, or the other complications.
Tattooing abroad checklist: What should you look out for?
If, despite the aforementioned risks, you still decide to get a tattoo abroad, please check the following list:
- Look around you. What’s your impression of the tattoo shop? Is it clean and do the staff wear gloves when they work?
- Is the shop a member of a quality-control organisation?
- Does the tattoo shop have good reviews on social media?
- Ask about the use of gloves, or how they dispose of used materials. Do the answers give you the impression that they work hygienically?
- Ask about the materials they use. Where does the ink come from? Bad needles and ink carry a heightened risk of complications.
- Check the use-by dates of the materials used. Is everything in sterile packaging and only unpacked just before use?
It’s quite normal for the skin to peel a bit after a tattoo. Try not to touch it and, if necessary, cover it with gauze, for instance, if your clothes are rubbing on your skin. Always follow the tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions. If necessary, take painkillers to ease the pain.
The tattoo might start to itch after about a week. Avoid scratching, because this can make the itching worse, or damage the tattoo. You can try gently tapping the tattoo to stop the itching. An antihistamine pill or an icepack might also help to relieve itching.
Look out for the following warning symptoms, especially in the first week after getting a tattoo:
- The itching doesn’t ease, but gets worse.
- The tattoo stays red and warm.
- The skin continues to bleed and is inflamed.
- General symptoms of illness, such as fever or muscle pain.
All these can point to one of the complications listed above. Contact a doctor to get a diagnosis and to find out whether treatment is necessary. A tattoo is, of course, a good way to capture a memory for all time. By following the advice given above, you will reduce the chances of unpleasant side effects and make the memory even better.