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Is It Safe To Get Tattoos When You Have Multiple Sclerosis?

Posted on May 09, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Joseph V. Campellone, M.D.
Article written by
Imee Williams

Tattooing is an ancient practice, but over the past decade, tattoos have become widely available and increasingly popular. In fact, about 24 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo. Some members of MyMSTeam have wondered whether tattoos are safe for individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS).

“I want to get a tattoo that represents me with this disease. Wondering if anyone got one after they were diagnosed and if it’s a good idea?” one member wrote. Another said, “I’ve always wondered if it’s ever a safe or good idea to get any tattoos with MS.”

Read on to find out what factors someone with MS should take into account before getting a tattoo.

Common Complications of Tattoos

Tattooing is the process of depositing permanent pigment or ink particles into the skin. The tattoo process involves puncturing the dermal layer of the skin up to .2 inches deep (5 millimeters) as many as 50 to 3,000 times per minute.

While tattoos are generally considered safe, they are not without risk. The incidence of complications associated with tattoos has been widely studied and experts have found common complications ranging from acute infections to severe illnesses. There is no reason to believe people with multiple sclerosis have more complications with tattoos than others. However, there are some complications to be aware of before deciding to get one.

Tattooing should only be done by a licensed, experienced professional in a reputable location who uses sterile equipment. According to one study of 90 licensed tattoo artists in New York City, only 56 percent had received training on tattoo-related skin conditions. Additionally, there is currently no common legislation regarding tattoos in the United States and the European Union. Because of this, complications can and do occur.

Short-Term Complications

It’s common for people to experience discomfort, redness, bleeding, and inflammation of their skin during and after the tattooing process. Some people with preexisting skin conditions may also experience worsening symptoms.

Short-term complications typically improve in a few weeks and may include:

  • Allergic reactions — Some people may develop an allergy or hypersensitivity to the tattoo ink, causing an itchy, red, bumpy rash.
  • Skin infections — The damaged skin can become infected as it heals.

It’s important to note that even if tattooing is performed in a reputable facility, certain bacteria that live on the skin’s surface can get under the skin during the tattooing process. Also, scratching the skin during healing can also lead to bacteria getting under the skin and causing an infection.

Long-Term Complications

If the equipment used for tattooing is not clean and sterile or you are prone to scarring, you may have a greater risk of long-term complications. Studies have shown that about 7 percent of people experience long-term complications after getting tattoos.

These could include:

  • Granulomas — An area of inflammation can form immediately around fresh inking or may appear years after the tattoo is placed
  • Keloids — A type of raised scar that forms where the skin is broken (in this case, the tattooed area) and overproduces scar tissue
  • Bloodborne diseases — Specifically risks for pyogenic infections with staphylococci, streptococci, Pseudomonas, and E. coli, and the transfer of hepatitis B and hepatitis C
  • MRI complications — Iron in some inks interfering with the quality of MRI images and causing inflammation or burning during MRI exams

Although there are risks and complications associated with tattoos, many MyMSTeam members shared having little to no symptoms after getting a tattoo. “I have six tattoos already and they have never interfered with the MRIs I have had,” wrote one member. “I have a few tattoos and have not had any issues,” said another.

Other Complications With MS

One common trigger of MS symptoms is heat. Although heat does not cause more demyelination or nerve damage, it can temporarily worsen MS symptoms. Many people with MS may have worsening symptoms when their internal body temperature rises due to fever, hot or humid climates, sunbathing, exercise, or even very hot showers.

In a 2020 study of 10 people with tattoos, researchers found that inked areas of participants’ skin produced 15 percent less sweat compared to skin areas without tattoos. They suspect that the tattooing process may damage sweat glands in the dermal layer of the skin. An earlier study of 10 more people with tattoos also found that inked skin has a greater concentration of sodium (salt) in sweat, which suggests decreased sweat gland function. Any damage to sweat glands within the skin may impair the body’s natural response to regulating body temperature and increase the risk of overheating. That said, at this time, there is no evidence that this has resulted in harm to people with MS.

Researchers believe tattoos that cover a higher percentage of the skin’s surface could cause long-term clinical side effects. However, more studies are needed to understand this claim and how various factors such as the application guns, needles, types of ink, ink colors, artists’ skills, tattoo designs, and age all might play a role in the risk of sweat gland damage.

One case report of an immunocompromised person (a person with a weakened immune system) showed the individual displayed complications with their tattoos like muscle inflammation, pain, and swelling. However, in a study of nearly 450 people in France with MS, researchers noted most participants got tattooed while taking various MS immunomodulating drugs. They reported that no participants experienced an infection or MS flare-up after getting tattooed.

While there are many potential complications from getting a tattoo, the best way to reduce these risks is to seek out a professional, licensed tattoo studio that uses hygienic practices. It is also important to understand that everyone is different and you may need to take special precautions when getting a tattoo. It’s always a good idea to consult with your neurologist and understand your own risks.

Aftercare of Tattoos

Always follow directions for aftercare instructions to reduce the risk of complications. Your tattoo artist should also offer some guidelines about skin care. However, you shouldn’t go to a tattoo artist for medical advice. At the first sign of an infection or allergic reaction (or any other adverse reaction), consult a health care provider (such as a dermatologist).

It can take a few weeks for a tattoo to heal. However, the French study found that only a comparatively few people with MS experienced a longer healing period.

Follow these recommendations after you get a tattoo:

  • Keep the tattooed area covered for 24 hours.
  • Keep the skin clean by gently washing the area with soap and water, and patting it dry.
  • Apply a thick layer of a mild ointment like petroleum jelly to the tattooed skin several times a day.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing to avoid sticking material to the tattoo.
  • Avoid sun exposure for at least a few weeks.
  • Avoid swimming in pools, hot tubs, rivers, or lakes as the tattoo heals.
  • Avoid scratching skin or picking at scabs that form to prevent damaging tattoo design, scarring, or risk of infection.

Tattoos and Self-Esteem

MS is an autoimmune condition that can have an impact on your body image. The French study of nearly 450 people with MS and tattoos reported body art increased a significant number of participants’ self-confidence and body image.

For some people, getting a tattoo to commemorate MS may help you cope with your disease and can also be a great reminder that you are still in control. Many members shared how getting tattoos have helped them feel empowered with their MS diagnosis. “I have a tattoo of a compass and rose on my shoulder. It signifies the time in my life when I had no idea which way I was heading with my MS,” one said. Another wrote, “I have an ‘MS Warrior’ tattoo with the orange ribbon because it will remind me of all the warriors I have met on MyMSTeam and in person.”

Meet Your Team

On MyMSTeam, the social media network designed to support people who have multiple sclerosis and their loved ones, more than 185,000 people who share a diagnosis of MS and understand the unique challenges of living with MS.

Have you had tattoos since being diagnosed with MS? What was your experience like? Share your thoughts in the comments below or by posting on MyMSTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Joseph V. Campellone, M.D. is board-certified in neurology, neuromuscular disease, and electrodiagnostic medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Imee Williams is a freelance writer and Fulbright scholar, with a B.S. in neuroscience from Washington State University. Learn more about her here.

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