Feel-ink Under the Weather? Here’s What to do About Tattoo Flu

By | July 29, 2022

Some people feel psyched about their new tattoo, while others might feel sick. 

If you’re feeling a bit under the weather after getting some new ink, you might be experiencing “tattoo flu.” Usually mild and quick to pass, this post tattoo flu-like illness is a common result of your body’s natural defenses saying “Whoa! A sharp thing is poking little holes in me!” 

Of course, post-2020, any symptoms could call for a bit more attention. But identifying this particular bug might be a little tricky. So take it easy as we lay out how to tell if you have tattoo flu and how to treat it.

man with tattoo sitting on couch with aches
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Tattoo flu explained

Besides sounding like a Baby Boomer album title, tattoo flu is a pretty common physical response to getting pricked repeatedly in the skin. As the tattoo artist helps you permanently commemorate whatever strikes your fancy, your immune system responds as if, well, you’re being wounded by an artistic weapon. 

And even though the skin art might look super rad, your body’s natural defenses see the new tattoo as nothing but a big ole throbbing owie. So while you might be super chill mentally, your immune system might charge in like there’s a four alarm fire.

When the needle hits your skin, your pain receptors go into overdrive, giving you a nice jolt of adrenaline which then makes your ticker beat a bit faster. 

All this hubbub alerts your immune system that there might be a bit of a situation here. After all, a needle is literally puncturing your skin,. And during a typical tattoo session, the needle pokes your skin a lot. Lots of pain = lots of adrenaline =  lots of perceived threat to your bod.

The immune system responds to this threat by sending in white blood cells — or leukocytes — to help fight off potential infection. That’s when some symptoms might kick in. And as your leukocytes get to work, your immune system is getting tapped out, making you even more prone to getting sick.

Signs that you may have tattoo flu

Tattoo flu might rock your body with any the following unpleasantries:

  • mild fever
  • chills
  • body aches
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • nausea/vomiting
  • stomach ache and maybe diarrhea
  • some swelling around the area of the tattoo

All of these symptoms tend to be mild and usually occur in the hours after you get your tattoo, but they might even start to show up during the session. 

If the fever or chills get stronger or if you see pus, blood or anything oozing on the skin around the tattooed area, this is a sign that you have an infection. Talk to a doctor stat.

Also, tattoo flu symptoms do NOT include congestion, runny nose or a cough. These symptoms might be a sign that you have the OG flu or COVID

Another huge thing to keep in mind is that an allergic reaction and an infection are totes different. If you have a rash, redness, itching or bumps around your new skin masterpiece, you might be having an allergic reaction to the ink. Again, see a doctor ASAP.

How to treat tattoo flu

If you do succumb to tattoo flu, treat yo’ self. Rest. Watch daytime TV. Rest some more. Eat very healthy meals. Rest even more. Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to lower your fever. Basically treat this sickness as if it is a regular flu.

Your symptoms should pass in a day or two as your body’s immune system calms down and gets to the proper work of healing the actual tattoo on your skin.

But, again, call a health pro if you see the following signs of infection:

  • high fever
  • increased body chills
  • diarrhea or vomiting that lasts longer than a day
  • pus, blood or anything oozing from the new tattoo

Also, call a doctor if you have any of these signs of a different illness:

  • runny nose
  • head congestion
  • chest congestion

OR if you have any of these signs of an allergic reaction around the new tattoo:

  • rash
  • redness
  • itchiness
  • bumps

How to care for a brand new tattoo

As we mentioned, it’s important to find a reputable tattoo artist and follow their aftercare instructions. These steps will not only help your skin heal, but they’ll probably protect you from infection, too:

  1. Keep the new tattoo covered with some kind of bandage for 24 hours. This keeps the nasty germs out.
  2. Remove the bandage after a day or so.
  3. Wash the new tattoo like it’s a baby. In other words, be gentle. Unscented soap and tepid water are best. 
  4. Then pat that baby dry. No scrubbing.
  5. Hydrate the new tattoo with some gentle unscented moisturizer. Just don’t use vaseline.
  6. Do NOT put a new bandage on it. Let that art air out.
  7. Avoid hot showers for a bit. Some people argue that you should avoid sweating, too.
  8. Don’t pick! Scabbing is normal, but stay away! It’ll never heal if you pick it…
  9. And avoid the sun. Those rays can damage your inked up skin just as much as it damages plain old skin. And sometimes any changes to skin that is under a tattoo is difficult to detect. So dermatologists stress that once the tattoo is fully healed, it should be protected from harmful UV rays in the same way that you would protect the rest of your skin.

Best ways to avoid feeling sick after a tattoo

Is there a way to avoid getting a “tattoo hangover?”

One crucial tip is to rewind to before your tattoo sesh. First and foremost, pick a reputable artist who has extremely clean tools and a sanitary place. They probably know the best ways to keep this experience as safe and clean as possible.

There are a lot of possible complications that come with getting a tattoo, so help your odds of avoiding them by keeping it clean and classy.

Also, anything that weakens your immune system will probably up the chances that you’ll get tattoo flu. Stress is a major culprit in lowering your guard to sickness. A solid, reputable tattoo artist will not only help care for your hygiene, they’ll put your mind at ease. Remember that stress has both physical and mental causes, so whatever helps your mind relax will also help your immune system.

… except for booze. Do NOT drink before getting a tattoo. A few cocktails might take some of the edge off, but alcohol weakens your immune system. And your tattoo artist probably won’t enjoy dealing with a buzzed customer. Bottom line — being tipsy while getting a tattoo will not only raise the chances that you’ll get a bad tattoo, it will raise the chances that you’ll get tattoo flu.

Having a healthy meal before the needle touches your skin is also good call. Bring a bottle of water with you and sip on it regularly. Maybe even have a little nosh, too. Take some breaks during the session to check in with your mind and your body. These breaks will lower any fight or flight response, chilling out your heart rate and lowering your adrenaline levels, signaling to your immune system that it can relax.

So before you sit down to copy that Pablo Neruda poem on to your left calf, make sure to be sober, rested, fed, and hydrated. 

After your tattoo, keep up this chillaxing routine for a day or two. Rest, eat well, and drink water, not alcohol. And follow your highly rated tattoo artist’s advice about how to care for your new art.

Bottom line

As you recover from your rad new tattoo, some flu-like symptoms might join up with your normal soreness and redness. Don’t panic. This “tattoo flu” is pretty common and should fade into memory in a few days (unlike your new tattoo). Your body’s immune system is making you feel wiped out while it attacks potential threats to your bod. 

Be on the lookout for a mild fever, chills, fatigue, and some tummy discomfort. Pamper yourself with lots of rest, healthy food, and non-alcoholic bevs. But if your symptoms last longer than a couple of days or worsen, go see a doctor ASAP.

Anything that helps bolster your immune system is a plus, like staying hydrated, getting a good night’s sleep and eating healthy food. If, at the end of the day, you still feel nervy about getting a tatt, give yourself a skin art test run with a temporary tattoo. No needles involved.

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