Getting a tattoo can be painful and it is a decision you may regret in the future. But, it rarely can cost you your life. Unfortunately, for one Texas man, his new tattoo proved to be a fatal decision.
A 31-year-old man from Texas got a fresh tattoo and ignored the artist’s aftercare requirements by deciding to go swimming in the Gulf of Mexico five days after getting it done. The man may not have been aware that the warm Gulf waters are a breeding ground for a potentially fatal form of flesh-eating bacteria.
V. vulnificus is a foodborne or waterborne pathogen that is typically found in seawater. V. vulnificus is in the same family of bacteria that causes cholera. However, if it enters your body through an open wound it could have much more grotesque results.
The bacteria is found in warm coastal waters ranging between 68 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the bacteria develops in warm water, the rate of infection is greater in between the months of May and October. According to the CDC, the bacteria causes about 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the United States every year. If the infection enters the bloodstream through an open wound there is a 50 percent chance the patient will die.
BMJ Case Reports, a medical journal, published the case about the subject who fell victim to the bacteria. The man was only identified as a 31-year-old Latino man from Texas. After the man went for a swim in the Gulf, he developed a fever and chills. Then a rash started to form around his tattoo. The tattoo was a large image of two hands clasped together in prayer along with the words “Jesus is my life.”
Three days after he began experiencing symptoms, he was admitted to the Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. “Within a few hours, things had progressed pretty quickly,” Dr. Nicholas Hendren, an internal medicine resident at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and author of the BMJ report told CNN. “There’s darkening skin changes, more bruising, more discoloration, what we call bullae – or mounds of fluid that were starting to collect in his legs – which, of course, is very alarming to anyone, as it was to us.”
Within 24 hours of being admitted, his condition deteriorated. He had tested positive for V. vulnificus and his organs started to fail. “He was already in the early stages of septic shock, and his kidneys had already had some injury,” Hendren said. “Very quickly, his septic shock progressed from early stages to severe stages very rapidly, within 12 hours or so, which is typical for this type of infection.”
According to the CDC, people with preexisting conditions (like this man with the tattoo) or 80 times more likely to develop a bloodstream infection from the bacteria.
“For patients who are healthy, this organism very rarely infects people,” Hendren told CNN. “If they are infected, most people do fine and essentially never present to the hospital. But in patients who do have liver disease, they’re susceptible to much more infection.”
Soon after being diagnosed, the man with the tattoo was kept sedated at the hospital for the next few weeks. After 18 days, Hendren was starting to feel better about the man’s condition and had him taken off the breathing machine to begin rehabilitation. However, over the next month, the man’s condition began to deteriorate again. The damage to his organs was just too great. He died of septic shock two months after being admitted.
The man with the tattoo was a rare case. Because of his pre-existing condition, he was at a higher risk for infection. But as Hendren said, most people don’t need to be hospitalized. The most common symptoms of V. vulnificus in your system are vomiting, diarrhea and some abdominal pain, nausea and fever. Usually, a round of antibiotics will be enough to treat the condition in people with healthy immune systems.
The tattoo man’s case is also very rare because of how he got the infection. The bacteria is mainly a foodborne pathogen. If you live around the warm waters of the Gulf Coast, you may want to avoid shellfish, particularly oysters. “In the USA, most serious infections appear to occur with the ingestion of raw oysters along the Gulf Coast, as nearly all oysters are reported to harbor V. vulnificus during the summer months and 95% of cases were related to raw oyster ingestion," Hendren said.
If you really love oysters that much, you may want to make sure they’re imported from the colder waters of the Northeast coast (they’re tastier anyway). But Hendren recommends that suffers from liver disease or immune-compromising illnesses should avoid raw shellfish altogether.
Oddly, V. vulnificus disproportionally affects men more than it does women. Around 85 percent of people who developed septic shock from the bacteria were men, compared to 15 percent of women. It’s been found that estrogen helps protect against V. vulnificus.
Also, to avoid any type of infection (not just a flesh-eating bacteria) Hendren says it’s important to follow aftercare instructions.
"For patients who get new tattoos, it's really important to listen to the recommendations," Hendren said. "Usually the tattoo parlors will provide clients with information about avoiding taking baths, avoiding swimming, definitely avoiding swimming in the ocean because that fresh wound is an entry way for bacteria, so keeping it clean is very important."