Two people in San Diego have contracted rare bacterial infections after getting tattoos prompting health officials to warn the public and offer advice. The two individuals contracted nontuberculous Mycobacterium (NTM), and both required medical care, according to a San Diego County news release today.

Public domain photo/Arpingstone at the English Wikipedia project
Public domain photo/Arpingstone at the English Wikipedia project

“People should be aware of the potential for these types of infections before getting a tattoo,” said Wilma Wooten, M.D., M.P.H., County public health officer.

NTM infections can cause itchy red bumps that can progress to abscesses starting days to weeks after a getting a tattoo.  The infections do not improve with treatment for common skin infections and may require use of multiple antibiotics for up to six months.  Permanent scarring can also occur, even after treatment.

NTM has been found in contaminated tattoo ink and in water used to dilute the ink to create gray areas of the tattoo. Contamination can also happen when the needle is rinsed between colors.  Infection can occur because the area being inked creates an open surface on the skin through which bacteria or other disease-causing organisms can easily enter the body.

The investigation into the infections is ongoing. For more infectious disease news and information, visit and “like” the Infectious Disease News Facebook page

Health officials offer the following advice for people shopping for a tattoo:

  • Make sure the artist is registered and the shop has a permit from DEH
  • Ask the artist any questions you have about hygiene and the tattooing process – the artist should willingly and comfortably answer them for you
  • Request inks and colors that are specifically made for tattooing, not for other purposes
  • Ask if the tattoo artist uses sterile water for diluting inks and rinsing needles  – this is not required by State regulations, but is a DEH Guideline to help prevent infection
  • Be aware of signs of an infection after getting a tattoo – they include redness, heat, swelling or pus on or around the tattoo

If you develop signs of an infection, promptly seek medical care and report the infection to the tattoo artist.

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