There was a time when tattoos were something only sailors, bikers, and other hard-livin’ rebels inked into their skin. Now 1 in 5 people have at least one—tattoos aren’t taboo anymore.
But can someone with diabetes get one?
Of course! And if you’re thinking about getting a medical alert tattoo, you’re taking a great step to ensure proper care in case of emergency.
What are the Risks?
Suzanne Ghiloni, B.S.N, R.N., C.D.E., a nurse educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, says tattoo precautions for patients with diabetes aren’t all that different from anyone else getting a tattoo. “Make sure the parlor you choose is licensed, state inspected, and clean,” she says.
When choosing a tattoo parlor, ask about how they manage their equipment. The shop you choose should:
- Have a licensed/accredited tattoo artist (preferably someone with artistic talent)
- Use a brand new needle just for you
- Autoclave their tattoo machines between customers
- Use disposable ink pots
“The only time I’d be hesitant is if the person has uncontrolled diabetes,” says Ghiloni. Her advice to anyone with diabetes, “get your HBA1C in a good range before you go to the tattoo parlor.” The reason: if your levels are out of control, you put yourself at risk for slower healing, nasty infections and, in severe cases, amputation.
“A person with diabetes need to be hyper-vigilant about preventing infection,” says Ghiloni. “Follow all the aftercare precautions.”
Stephan Lanphear, an award winning tattoo artist who helped legalize tattoo parlors in Massachusetts, is also a Joslin patient living with type 1 diabetes. During the legalization process, Lanphear helped the board of health write guidelines and regulations for the tattoo industry. “Health releases in tattoo studios have a question to see if you have diabetes,” he says. “The tattoo industry recognizes it’s a risk.”
Lanphear finds his biggest concern as a person with diabetes is healing time. Usually, tattoos take around two weeks to heal. “But for me,” says Lanphear, “It’s usually a week to a week and a half more time where can I say okay, this is what a healed tattoo would be for someone with normal health.”
He notes, however, that healing time will differ person to person. “If you’re somebody who has diabetes you need to know your body,” he says.
You should also be aware that there are some spots for your tattoo that are better than others. Ankles, feet, shins, and buttocks are all problem areas if you suffer from poor blood circulation since they take longer to heal and are more susceptible to infections.
Another tip for those with diabetes: tattoos can take a long time, sometimes much longer than you expect. Sitting in a chair for hours puts you at risk for hypoglycemia so be sure to bring some glucose tabs or whatever else you use to treat your lows.
Tattoos for Your Health
Not everyone is vigilant about wearing a medical alert bracelet. But if you have diabetes, especially if you’re insulin dependent, you put your life at risk heading out of the house empty-wristed. If you find yourself often forgetting to wear medical identification, consider a medical alert tattoo.
These permanent ID’s have seen a surge in popularity over the past few years. “It’s a really great idea,” says Lanphear. “I’m surprised I haven’t seen more people doing it.”
So, where should an alert tattoo go? Although there are no standards for medical alert tattoos, the general consensus is the right wrist. Another option is on your neck above the carotid artery (where EMT’s check your pulse), but that can be harder to cover in professional settings. Over the heart is another popular choice, although that may not be the first place the medics look.
When choosing the design, try to keep it simple and fairly obvious it is health related. The caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius are both the most commonly used symbols on medical alert jewelry. The light blue circle, a universal diabetes symbol started by the International Diabetes Federation in 2006, is another popular motif.
If you’re adding words—which you should, the point of this is to inform healthcare workers—make sure you choose a legible font. Medical tattoos for diabetes often read “Type 1/Type 2,” “Diabetic,” or “Insulin Dependent.” If you don’t add this information, the tattoo will only confuse people in an emergency. Is this for a penicillin allergy? Does this person have epilepsy? What does this mean?! If you’re going to invest in a medical alert tattoo you want it to do its job.
Lastly, whether it’s a medical alert tattoo or an artistic design, bear in mind that this is going to be on your skin the rest of your life. Although laser technology for tattoo removal has come a long way in the past decade, the treatment can take much longer to heal for those with diabetes (you are, after all, burning off your skin). On top of that, laser treatment is not cheap—anywhere from $49 to $300 per square inch depending on your skin type and the ink used.
If you’re considering a tattoo, whether it’s medical or not, don’t stop by the parlor on a whim and don’t be afraid to voice any concerns that you have.
“If the people in the shop don’t want to spend the time to walk you through the process and explain everything that’s going on and answer all your questions then turn around and walk out,” says Lanphear. “That would be my best advice.”
If you want a less permanent fix that doesn’t involve a bracelet, try temporary medical tattoos. These are a great alternative for teenagers (and even younger children) who have a hard time remembering their medical identification.