Getting a Tattoo With HIV: 6 Facts You Should Know | myHIVteam

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Getting a Tattoo With HIV: 6 Facts You Should Know

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Cueto, M.D.
Posted on May 8, 2024

Living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can leave you wondering whether certain activities are still safe for you — including getting a tattoo. Fortunately, the answer is generally a “yes.” People with HIV need to take the same precautions as everyone else before getting ink.

Some members of myHIVteam feel comfortable getting tattoos: “I have two tattoos and have had no issues. Just take care of yourself and go to a respectful tattoo place,” said one member.

But not everyone agrees. “The possibility of a tattoo artist being careless and not cleaning their equipment or using used or dirty needles is scary. Check out the artist and their parlor thoroughly before proceeding. Your life is worth more than a few inches of ink,” warned another member.

If you’re on the fence, here are some facts you should know before your next visit to the tattoo parlor.

1. Tattooing Can Spread HIV

Tattooing comes with the potential risk of transmitting infectious diseases. Bloodborne pathogens, like HIV and the hepatitis C virus, can spread when sharing needles. That’s why finding a reputable tattoo artist who uses safe and hygienic practices is crucial.

Tattooists should use new tools with each client. They should wear disposable gloves and open a fresh package of needles, ink pots, stencils, and other equipment that can’t be sterilized. Always go to a licensed professional who is willing to explain their safety practices before taking any unnecessary health risks.

2. Discrimination Is Illegal

People with HIV may face discrimination at dental offices, tattoo shops, and in the workplace. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) clearly explains that discriminating against those with HIV is against federal law.

In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that people with HIV are legally protected. This law was amended in 2008 to help solidify HIV’s status as a protected disability. In 2022, a tattoo parlor in California was ordered to pay $7,000 in damages to a patron who was denied a tattoo after disclosing their HIV status.

Some members of myHIVteam feel comfortable disclosing their HIV status upfront. “I have been very open about my status,” said one member. “I am going on my 22nd year, and I have learned to explain my status. I keep all the current information from the CDC on hand to help others understand or at least have the ability to make a decision based on facts, not fears.” (“CDC” refers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Other members prefer to keep their status to themselves: “I almost never disclose,” said another member. “I was shocked how ignorant people are, and it’s definitely not worth the risk I take by disclosing to someone uneducated.”

People with HIV who disclose their status to a tattoo parlor or any other business cannot legally be turned away because of it. Instead, it’s the responsibility of a tattoo artist to ensure the safety of every customer by taking proper precautions at all times.

3. Complications May Happen

HIV doesn’t have to stop you from getting a tattoo, but that’s not to say tattoos are risk-free. There’s always a chance of infection or an allergic reaction with tattooing.

Aside from the possibility of contamination, some people have a bad reaction to the tattoo ink. Studies suggest that HIV itself doesn’t increase the risk of adverse effects from tattoos, but antiretroviral therapy (ART) may. This is probably because ART ramps up the immune system. Researchers found that the adverse reactions experienced by participants taking ART were caused either by their immune systems starting to recover — known as immune reconstitution syndrome (IRS) — or by an infection called leishmaniasis.

Sometimes, people have a reaction to new tattoos even when they didn’t have any issues after getting tattoos in the past. Specifically, red ink pigment is associated with a higher chance of an allergic reaction.

Monitoring your tattoo for any signs of a reaction is critical. Don’t hesitate to contact your doctor if you think you’re having complications from a tattoo. Allergic reactions may resolve on their own or with steroid treatment. Other times, the tattoo must be removed. The most important thing is to make sure you stay safe.

4. You Can Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask your tattoo artist questions and shop around before selecting the right tattoo parlor. If someone hesitates to answer your questions or becomes defensive, it’s unprofessional and could mean they’re not a reliable tattoo artist. Your tattoo artist should be willing to meet with you before your appointment to review any concerns, share their portfolio, and answer your questions about their experience and safety practices. Listen to your gut, and move on if you feel uncomfortable for any reason.

5. Tattooing Guns Are Not Sterile

You should never get a tattoo from someone using a piercing gun. Since tattooing guns are made of plastic, there’s no way to sterilize them properly. As a result, they pose a high risk for infection transmission and disease.

Your tattoo artist should use a new needle for each client. They should promptly throw away any equipment that’s been potentially exposed to bodily fluids. All permanent equipment and tools should be sterilized in an autoclave to prevent the spread of bacterial, viral, or fungal infections between customers.

6. Aftercare Is Essential

If you decide to get a tattoo, remember to take special precautions as you heal. Tattoo healing will take around two weeks. Good aftercare reduces your risk of infection and affects the final look of your tattoo. One member of myHIVteam advised, “You’ll heal a little slower, and the risk of infections may be greater, so following the aftercare instructions is a big must.”

Only touch the area with clean hands, and take off the bandage within two hours of getting your tattoo. Don’t cover it again with another bandage or attempt to clean it with harsh cleansers (like rubbing alcohol or peroxide). Instead, gently wash the area, and gently pat it dry with a paper towel.

Keeping the area clean is essential, so wash and dry your tattoo carefully three times per day for the first week or two. However, you should avoid soaking in hot tubs, baths, or swimming pools until fully healed.

After cleaning the area, apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment. After five days, switch to a fragrance-free lotion. Some scabbing or flaking is normal, but you should always resist the urge to pick.

Stay away from the sun (and tanning beds) for four weeks after getting a tattoo. Once it’s healed for four weeks, you can apply sunblock to the tattooed area for protection.

If you have any signs of an allergic reaction or infection, call your health care provider right away. It’s better to err on the side of caution and catch any issues early.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myHIVteam, the social network for people with HIV and their loved ones, more than 41,000 people with HIV come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with HIV.

Would you feel comfortable getting a tattoo or body piercing as someone with an HIV-positive status? Would you disclose the possibility of HIV transmission to the tattoo artist? Post your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by sharing on your Activities page.

Posted on May 8, 2024
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Elizabeth Cueto, M.D. graduated from the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. Learn more about her here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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