Tattoo inks, except for red, are hypoallergenic, so allergic reactions are extremely uncommon. However, since red ink is not hypoallergenic, you can still have an allergic reaction to it. Like any allergic reaction, your bodily response can range from mild to life threatening, so it is important to be familiar with risks, symptoms and implications before you let the needle touch your skin. Tattoo allergies are very rare, but for safety's sake, it is important to be familiar with the reactions and prevention.
Our immune system works to protect our bodies from foreign particles and substances, and if you are allergic to something, it is because your body overreacts to that substance in your system. Once exposed to the antigen, or the particle, instead of the body reacting normally, it creates antibodies to kill the antigen. Then, it releases mediator cells to control the antibody, and this causes the allergy symptoms. The antibody is IgE (immunoglobulin E) and the mediator is histamine, which is why medicines for allergies are antihistamines.
The histamine may cause a variety of symptoms. Depending on the severity of the allergy, you may just have hives, which raise itchy red bumps on the skin. Or, your eyes may become itchy, red and watery, and your nose could stuff up. More severe reactions include swelling of the face, throat, and/or eyes, tightness of the chest, wheezing, difficulty breathing, dizziness, lightheadedness, or unconsciousness. For red tattoo ink, reactions range from mild rashes to blisters or lesions on the skin.
Allergic reactions require treatment depending on their severity. A mild reaction requires an antihistamine in the form of a pill or liquid. For rashes and hives, there are antihistamine creams that go directly on the skin. Moderate and severe reactions require immediate medical attention because they can be life threatening. These reactions are very rare, and involve a trip to the hospital right away for epinephrine treatments.
Before getting a tattoo, ask the tattoo artist to put a dot of red ink on your skin to see if there is any reaction. Be sure to wait 24 hours, because mild reactions such as rashes sometimes take a few hours to show up. If the skin remains clear, getting a tattoo with red ink should not be too risky. If the skin is not clear, it is best to avoid tattoos with red ink.
If you do get a tattoo despite the allergy, or get the tattoo without knowing you are allergic, you can treat the reaction with medicated creams. A doctor can also prescribe steroids as treatment. Be sure to keep the area clean and moisturized and pay close attention to the appearance of the skin. Just because the skin is red or irritated does not necessarily mean you are having a reaction, so it is best to talk to a doctor.
Though other tattoo inks are hypoallergenic, they do contain various metals that can cause allergic reactions. If you are allergic to any metals, be sure to talk to your tattoo artist before getting your tattoo. You can do the same 24-hour test for other inks in these instances, especially since manufacturers have no requirement to disclose the ingredients in tattoo inks. Latex allergy is common, too. If you are allergic, ask that the tattoo artist were non-latex gloves. Ointments used to moisturize and protect the tattoo afterward may cause reactions as well. Though this is not common, it is something to consider.