I Have Diabetes. Can I Get a Tattoo?

Body art and managing tattoo risks
person's foot with tattoo

By: Sue Cotey and Andrea Harris, RNs

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Tattoos. They are more popular than ever. Today, more than 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo. But if you have diabetes, getting a tattoo may pose unique risks.

As diabetes educators, people sometimes ask us for advice about getting a tattoo. When you have diabetes, you really have to consider the physical consequences of everything you do.

How does my blood sugar affect risks associated with tattoos?

People may not realize that to get a tattoo, the skin is pierced between 50 and 3,000 times a minute by a tattoo machine. Your skin is a barrier that protects you from infections. Getting a tattoo breaks this barrier. A tattoo affects the dermis, or the second layer of skin, because the cells of the dermis are more stable than the first layer, or epidermis.

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Piercing skin at this level poses unique risks to people with diabetes. If your blood sugars are not in good control, your immune system is also affected — putting you at even higher risk for infection and potential difficulty fighting it off.

Tattooing is under strict hygiene rules from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because of this risk of infection. The needles must only be used once and the tattoo artist must wear gloves while doing the work. According to the FDA, among the most severe infections that can be transmitted is hepatitis.

If you have considered the risk, and still want to get a tattoo, remember to do the following:

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  • Talk to your doctor first. It’s important to discuss your particular case with your doctor so he or she can assess your individual risk. Involving your doctor is even more important as the American Diabetes Association, which would normally offer guidance, has issued no official position statement at this time about tattoos.
  • Make sure your blood sugar is in good control. This means blood glucose tests and hemoglobin A1C, or an index of average blood glucose for the previous three to four months, need to be in the target range. Your hemoglobin A1C should be less than 7 percent.
  • Make sure you are going to a reputable place. Sounds obvious, but sometimes it’s not so clear which places are truly reputable with more than 20,000 tattoo parlors in the United States alone. You can find a good place by asking for references and checking with the Better Business Bureau for any complaints filed.

By taking the right precautions, you can be sure that you are making an informed decision about tattoos and risks involved when you have diabetes. Taking the time to involve your doctor could prevent future problems. Body art is beautiful, but a healthy body is even more beautiful.

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