INKED Confession: My Infected Tattoo Landed Me in the ER

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What Everyone Should Know About Aftercare

I think it's fair to say I never thought in a million years that a tattoo would land me in the hospital. However, in November of 2016, I found myself preparing for a procedure that would change my perspective on tattoo care forever.

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Back in October of the same year, I'd received my 15th tattoo from a tattooer I'd been going to for years. She'd already inked four pieces on me—including large pieces on my left bicep and right thigh. Every experience I've had with her has been professional and up to health code, including the one I'm about to share with you. Let's be clear, my experience with this tattoo had nothing to do with the tattoo process and everything to do with my aftercare. While there are some circumstances where an unsanitary tattoo experience can result in infection, but 9/10 its a result of how you take care of your fresh ink. Tattoo artists, including mine, take health guidelines very seriously and they do not have control of what happens when you leave their studio.

Anyway, after fifteen times under the needle you would think I'd have my aftercare routine down—however, I was always down to experiment with new remedies and solutions. I'd become pretty familiar with traditional aftercare creams like Aquaphor in the past, but at the time I was curious about other methods. At the time, I had a roommate who was a fellow tattoo collector, and she suggested that I try coconut oil. I'd been using coconut oil for several years in my regular beauty routine, applying it straight onto my skin as a moisturizer and in my hair as a leave in conditioner. I'd never had a reaction to using coconut oil on my body in the past, aside from making my hair appear greasy. I thought that I had nothing to lose and I lathered up my ink for the first couple days of the healing process.

Now, here is where I made my first mistake. Although I'd healed over a dozen tattoos and knew the proper amount of moisturizer to use—I couldn't help myself. This piece, which was an homage to my cats, was on my left thigh and pretty large. In addition, it was a dry time of year and I couldn't stand having itchy ink. So, in order to prevent discomfort I went a bit heavy handed on my aftercare.

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For the first few days, my tattoo and the surrounding area was fine. And this is where I made my biggest mistake. In my mind, I thought that as long as I avoided the tattoo itself, shaving the area would be A-OK. I would never intentionally shave a fresh tattoo, but I believed that I would be fine if I shaved a few inches away from it. Boy, was I wrong on that one.

Because I had oversaturated the surrounding area of the tattoo and was opening up my skin to infection by shaving—I experience a breakout of white bumps around my ink. I thought I'd had a reaction similar to this once before, when I got my hips tattooed in the summer of 2014. But, as you may have guessed, I had no idea what I was actually in for when my skin reacted.

With clean hands and a tissue, I proceeded to drain each of the tiny bumps and I thought that I would wake up the next morning with clear skin around my tattoo. Yet, despite my hopes I was horrified by what I saw the next day. Most all of the small bumps had disappeared, with the exception of two that appeared to have hardened under the surface. At the time, neither was much larger than a cashew and I took no time in making sure they got taken care of.

Between classes, I went to an urgent care clinic down the street from my college and requested a remedy for the two bumps. After examining me, the doctor gave me a prescription for antibiotics and told me that this would get rid of my problem. I immediately drove to the nearest CVS and began taking the medicine as directed. But, instead of going away, the bumps got bigger and I started to freak out. When I went back to the doctor, she told me that I would need to wait until they had softened up before getting them removed.

In less than two days, the larger of the two swelled to the size of a large grape and my entire left thigh became extremely sore on contact. I was forced to sleep on my right side, because even resting on my back was becoming uncomfortable. During this time, I had completely stopped moisturizing my tattoo and was letting the affected area dry heal then on. At this point, I had bigger problems to worry about than an itchy tattoo.

Doctor talking to troubled patient in hospital

Doctor talking to troubled patient in hospital

Doctor talking to troubled patient in hospital

By the third day, sitting or lying down was practically unbearable no matter what position I was in. At the time, I had nine hours of class time but I could barely sit for more than a couple hours at a time. I knew that I needed to do something about this and I would do pretty much whatever it took to get rid of the pain. I went to the doctor for a third time and it was clear to everyone that my situation was becoming more desperate. They told me that I needed to have the boil drained within the next two days and that I had a few options as to how I would have the infection removed. I could either go to the emergency room, schedule an emergency appointment with a plastic surgeon, or have the procedure taken care of at the clinic but risk major scarring.

Something that is important to keep in mind is that this entire time, I was going through this nightmare completely alone. I lived 6+ hours from home and my parents, who at the time were suggesting that I should fly/ drive home to get the procedure done. But, let's remember that I could barely sit down for more than a few hours and I was growing hysterical by the minute.

Although I worried a bit about having a scar, I ended up biting the bullet and heading into the clinic first thing the next morning. I'd already become familiar with the staff who had watched the bump grow over the past week and I was quickly escorted into an operating room. Luckily, I was getting help at just the right time. When I woke up in the morning, my bump had swelled to the size of a golf ball. The area was red and a tiny white peak of puss had appeared at the head. I gave it a small squeeze, prepared to witness a Dr.Pimple Popper video right in front of my eyes. The bump began to pus slightly and I felt relieved that it was finally ready to erupt from my body. I know that the visual I've just given you sounds totally disgusting, but you can't understand how relieved I was to be rid of this nightmare.

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The doctor prepared me with a bit of local anesthesia, however, he might as well have not bothered. I was about to be in one of the most painful experiences of my entire life and I honestly didn't feel like the area was numbed. Afterward, they told me to look away and the doctor took a scalpel to the head of my bump. I'd initially wanted to watch this go down, but I think if I had I would have passed out. Once the wound was open, the doctor then began to forcefully squeeze out all of the puss and clean out the wound. I began to cry and I held on tightly to the nurse at my side. I can even remember calling out for my mom, even though she was several states away. Luckily, a few seconds later they were done and the doctor put a wad of gauze into the wound and bandaged me up. I took a few minutes to collect myself and then spent the rest of my day recuperating in bed.

The doctors gave me clear instructions on how I should take care of my wound and they warned me that I would have a hole in my leg for the next couple days. The thought of this was completely disturbing and I tried not to think about the empty crater in my thigh. After a few days, I was able to take the bandage off, the gauze out, and take a look at my new hole. They were right, I did have a big hole in my leg but the area was clean and I planned to baby the hell out of it. I cleaned out the wound with soapy water and put a smaller amount of gauze into it before putting a bandaid on top. Then, a few days after that, I was able to remove the gauze completely and continued to keep the affected area clean.

It's amazing how fast my hole healed and by the end of the next week, it was almost completely closed. I think that it's fair to mention that at this point, my tattoo had healed as well and hadn't suffered any damage from the ordeal. Aside from a nickel sized pink scar, I had come out of this experience completely unscathed.

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Today, it has been over a year since my aftercare disaster and I definitely learned a lot from my week of hell. First, I never over-moisturize my tattoo anymore. The next couple tattoos that I got were either healed dry or using Saniderm. Second, I wait until my tattoo is completely healed before shaving anywhere near it. And lastly, if there is a breakout nearby my fresh tattoo, I leave it the hell alone!

I hope that after hearing my story, INKED readers can learn a thing or two about taking care of their ink. Because even if we think we are being cautious and careful, disasters can happen to the best of us.