Literally millions of people in the United States have tattoos, with more getting them every day. With this form of body art being so commonplace, it's easy to understand how people sometimes end up being a little bit too lax in their aftercare. Sadly, for one man, it proved fatal.
BMJ Case Reports recently reported on a 31 year old man who went for a swim too soon after getting a new tattoo and how that swim eventually cost him his life.
Tattoos are, essentially, very controlled open wounds. With proper after-care they are absolutely safe and can be beautiful. Sometimes, though, people wrongly assume that since the tattoo no longer hurts, it's healed. That was likely what happened with this man.
His tattoo consisted mostly of line work, which stops hurting for most people inside of a few days. He went for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico too soon after getting the ink. Most tattoo artists will tell you to avoid swimming, particularly in natural bodies of water, for at least two weeks after getting a tattoo. The tattoo is a wound, which means it is a break in your skin's natural barrier that infections can use to enter the body.
Just a few days after his swim, he began to feel feverish and blisters began to show on his tattoo. He sought out medical help and discovered that he had contracted the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus -- commonly found in sea water and raw oysters. Even with medical care, heavy antibiotics, and round-the-clock supervision the man passed away of septic shock in just a few days.
If this bacteria is common in sea water and raw oysters, and people swim in the ocean and eat raw oysters every day without dying, what made this man's case so different? Was it just the tattoo?
A little bit of research by the medical team showed that the man had chronic liver disease, which would have made him much more susceptible to the bacteria. In fact, current health guidelines suggest that people with chronic liver disease should avoid swimming in the ocean and eating raw oysters if they have any open wounds. The term "open wound" is a tricky one. Most people think of large gashes when they hear the phrase, but it could also be little things that you might forget you have or incorrectly think are healed like a bug bite you scratched too hard, a paper cut, a snagged nail or -- in this man's case -- a relatively new tattoo.
As the story makes its way across social media, some people have had unkind things to say about it, and tattoos in general.
Tattoos have been around since 12,000 B.C.E. and are not going away any time soon. Make sure to follow all of your after-care instructions carefully, choose your shop and your artist wisely and be safe! Our condolences to the man's friends, family and medical team.