Ask The Doctor

Medical and Artwork Tattoos

Dear Dr. Garner,

I heard you talking about tattoos on TV last week. I believe you said that tattoos could be good if they carried medical information, like allergies to pills.   

The discussion awakened old wounds as my son got a tattoo on his arm two years ago against my wishes.

I think that it not only looks bad, especially when he interviews for a job, but also could be dangerous to his health. What do you think?

Tattooed Son in
Sheepshead Bay

Dear Tattooed,

I believe you are talking about an interview I did regarding a special type of tattoo, known as a medical tattoo. This type has specific medical information about a person as its main content.

Examples of the information included are health conditions, such as diabetes or epilepsy as well as allergies to medications such as penicillin. Some people currently wear bracelets to alert others about their medical problems. The bracelets are subject to breakage or loss, and the tattoo is a more permanent way of conveying the information. They are permanently placed on a person’s skin.

Tattoos, whether done for a medical reason or for “artwork,” carry risks, even when done under the best of circumstances. The dyes used for the tattoo are not rigorously controlled by the FDA, so it is important to be an educated consumer and visit only reputable tattoo facilities.

Some medical complications associated with tattoos, in addition to allergies to the dye used, include infection of the skin and the body, such as hepatitis and HIV. If not done in a hygienic facility, the possibility for infection is high. The facility should have the feel of a hospital, and the tattoo artist should wear gloves and use sterile technique.

Before getting a tattoo, inspect the bathroom of the facility. This can be a tip-off as to a facility’s hygienic practices.

The intent of medical tattoos is different from a tattoo done for artwork, however, both are subject to the complications above.

If you want privacy regarding your medical conditions, the medical tattoo may not be appropriate for you as many will be able to read your medical problems. This could affect future employment as the condition might be visible during an interview.

In addition, medical issues may change over time and the message may be different as you age.

In addition, the legality of certain medical tattoos is in question, particularly when they advise healthcare workers not to do CPR or resuscitate someone.

We currently use medical tattoos in hospitals. An example is in radiation for breast cancer in which the area to be irradiated is marked on the skin so it can record the exact location of the cancer should future treatments be needed. In addition, some plastic surgeons use tattoos when doing reconstruction of a breast after breas tcancer to simulate the nipple.

Before any tattoo is obtained, whether for artwork or medical reasons, careful thought must be paid to the decision as it will be permanent. What might seem like a great idea now may not be 30 years down the road.

Medical tattooing is here to stay and I believe its use will increase.

While we may not agree with tattoos as “artwork,” we must make sure that our children and those getting tattoos are as safe as possible.

Here are questions all prospective tattoo clients should ask:
• Is the person doing the tattoo licensed?
• Does the tattoo artist wear gloves?
• Does the parlor use proper equipment (disposable needles and container of dye)?
• Does the parlor wash down all equipment, mats, and cabinets after each procedure with bleach?

The aftercare of a tattoo is very important. The bandage covering the area should be removed after 24 hours. Antibiotic ointment should be applied. One should use plain soap and water to gently clean the area — do not rub it. Moisturizer should be applied liberally.

At the slightest sign of infection (blisters, redness, pain and/or discoloration), go to your doctor.[hr] Dr. Steven Garner, a Fidelis Care provider, is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.

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