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Getting a tattoo is an exciting experience. However, after you've got your ink, it can be a nail-biting one too. Like any open wound, tattoos go through all sorts of strange healing processes—and they're also at risk of getting infected.
With that in mind, here's a run-through of what sort of things to expect. Please note, while I'm a tattooed lady, I am not a medical expert. If you're concerned about any aspect of your healing, talk to your tattoo artist, and also a doctor.
The day of the tattoo...
Straight after your tattoo session, you can expect your new artwork to throb. It may also feel warm, tight and burning. These are all fairly standard skin reactions to trauma and aren't anything to be concerned about.
When you get back home, you may notice that you're oozing a bit too. That's a nice image, isn't it! Black and grey pieces tend to leak less—full colour tattoos are notorious for oozing ink and plasma, especially if they're on your legs. Again, don't panic—this is perfectly normal. You should expect some colour to drop out too—though hopefully not too much.
The first night
The first night after getting a tattoo is always a bit fraught. Your skin will feel uncomfortable, and it's likely you'll leak onto your bed sheets, regardless of how well you cover it up.
It's a wise idea to ask your tattoo artist whether you should wrap the tattoo on the first night. Opinions are divided, with some saying that it helps protect the wound and others saying that wrap provides a warm breeding ground for bacteria.
Make sure you have fresh bedding though—the last thing you want is old, dirty sheets against your fresh ink.
The next few days
Most tattoo artists will recommend that you keep the tattoo clean (straightforward soap and warm water usually does the trick) and perhaps use a specialist cream to stop it drying out. You can also use a special type of wrap like Saniderm that's fully breathable (I personally swear by this stuff).
In those first 48 hours or so, it's likely that you'll experience more leaking, though this should diminish as time goes on. If it still leaks strongly after 48 hours, you might want to call your tattoo artist to check the situation.
You may also still leak a clear fluid called plasma. Sometimes this can be slightly yellowish, or it may take on the colour of the ink. It's normal for your body to produce this, but it shouldn't be weeping excessively at this stage.
Keep an eye out for:
- Excessive swelling. Swelling is common, especially in the legs (if you're moving around a lot, this can be exacerbated). However, if it feels excessively tight or throbbing, this can be a sign of infection too.
- Coloured discharge. Here's where things can get confusing (and worrying if you're a tattoo newbie). While some plasma can be slightly yellow tinted, it shouldn't look milky or full-on yellow. Keep an eye on it, and if it continues, get in touch with a doctor. Discharge (particularly if it's smelly) is a classic sign of infection.
As the days go on...
In an ideal world, your tattoo should start to feel a whole lot better after 2-3 days. The swelling should start to subside, and the leaking should completely stop. That alarming redness should now be totally gone too.
At this stage (and over the next few days), you'll want to keep an eye out for:
- Cracking and bleeding. If you've done your aftercare right, you shouldn't get a thick scab, and thus shouldn't get any cracking or bleeding.
- A red 'aura' around the tattoo. Redness radiating from the edge of the tattoo is a sign of infection. While this often happens when the tattoo is first done, it should be long gone by day three onwards (unless your skin took a real beating).
- Pain/stinging. At this point, your tattoo will still be sore, but it shouldn't be actively painful and you shouldn't have any serious discomfort.
- Pimples/raised areas. A few pimples at the start is relatively common. Also, as your hair grows back, this can cause pimples to occur. However, if they're red and angry-looking, or there are a lot of them, this could be a sign of an allergic reaction to one of the ink colours.
If in doubt...
If you're worried about any aspect of your tattoo healing, it's important to speak to your tattoo artist. While Dr. Google may be able to provide some peace of mind, it isn't a trained expert, nor is it a medical physician!
If the tattoo looks infected, don't leave it for too long before seeking medical help. Infection can be serious if it's left untreated—and it's vital to go to your doctor as soon as possible. Most infections can be put right with a course of antibiotics.
My experiences with infection
Sadly, I've had a tattoo get infected in the past. I've also had several that have healed just fine, so I can testify that there's a noticeable difference.
The first signs for me were the redness around the tattoo (which didn't go away) and the sharp pain. The tattoo refused to heal over and kept weeping. After a week, the skin cracked and bled. Eventually I ended up going to an emergency clinic, where they immediately confirmed it was infected.
Although it healed just fine after the antibiotics, I was left with a few raised scars where the skin had cracked. They're not too noticeable now (after about five years), but you can still see them. The moral of the story? Don't leave it too late—it's better to seek a medical opinion sooner rather than later. However, bear in mind that most tattoos behave "grossly" for the first few days—and that many of the icky, painful symptoms are perfectly normal.