The Situation: A "friend of mine" wants to know: Can you really die if you swim in the ocean after getting a tattoo? How about the pool? I saw those pictures and the story of that the guy died from swimming in the ocean, but come on; if that happened all the time, half the cast of Jersey Shore would have bit the dust in the first episode, right?
The Reality: If you have gotten a tattoo from a reputable artist, you have probably gotten some aftercare instructions, including no swimming for about two weeks. The reason for that: "Tattoos are basically microscopic puncture marks in the skin through which bacteria and viruses can enter and cause an infection," says Paul Yamauchi of the Dermatology Institute and Skin Care Center in Santa Monica, California.
Your skin is a shield against the microscopic invaders that thrive in lakes and oceans and also take to hot tubs and swimming pools. Until the skin heals, a tattoo needle puts a thousands of holes in that shield.
The Worst That Could Happen: What's been presented as a worst-case scenario has made the news recently. A 31-year-old Texas man died from complications of a vibrio vulnificus infection he apparently picked up while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico five days after getting a tattoo on his leg. The story originated in a BMJ Case Report.
The articles that cluttered news websites and were shared across social media showed photos of the reddened, scarred design of a cross and hands in prayer on the dead man's leg and focused on the new tattoo. The New York Daily News's headline, for example: "Texas man dies after swimming with new tattoo".
Experts are skeptical that the tattoo was to blame. "I think it would be more accurate to say, 'Man who recently got a tattoo and had liver disease died from soft tissue infection," says Larry Bush, an infectious disease specialist. "We don't know if the infection came from the tattoo or something he ate or something he stepped on." The BMJ noted that the man had chronic liver disease, meaning a commonly overcome infection was able to cause septic shock and cellulitis, leading to death.
Myers Hurt, a family physician in Frisco, Texas, used to work in Galveston, bordering the Gulf, and says that vibrio vulnificus is common there, regularly entered the body through mishaps with fishing hooks and stepping on glass or rocks while on the beach. "Usually, it can be treated with antibiotics," he says, "unless you have some liver pathology."
Both Hurt and Bush say they do not know of other cases where a person's death was blamed on swimming after getting inked. So, yes, swimming with a new tattoo puts one at risk for a bacterial infection, but it's very rare to die from it.
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What'll Probably Happen: Probably nothing serious. About 30 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo. Infections or medical complications from them are rare, says Bush. "In the last five years, I haven't seen anyone with this issue," he says. He doesn't know of any statistics on the rate of infections of new tattoos, but the rate from skin openings from surgeries is one to two percent.
And complications from tattoos tend to be mild. In a scientific analysis published last year, German researchers couldn't report the prevalence of tattoo-related infections because most were so tolerable and treatable they never made it into reports. "In most cases such mild-to-moderate superficial skin infections remain unreported since they are self-limiting or easily treated with proper aftercare, local disinfection measures and/or antibiotic therapy," the authors concluded.
What You Should Tell Your Friend: Bush says he thinks the two-week rule about not swimming after getting a tattoo might be "overkill," but a new tattoo puts the skin in a unique situation and you should listen to your tattoo professional. However, if your mom forwarded that story about the guy in Texas, assure her that infections from tattoos are rare and usually mild and that poor man had other medical problems.
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