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Getting a Tattoo May Increase Hepatitis C Infection Risk: Study

A new study suggests that there may be a link between getting a tattoo and an increased risk of Hepatitis C, but the results may not be as conclusive as some would hope.  

Researchers surveyed nearly 4,000 people from three outpatient clinics in the New York area, asking if they had a tattoo and whether they had hepatitis C, along with other questions. The study, conducted between 2004 and 2006, found that people with hepatitis C were four times more likely to also have a tattoo, even when other major risk factors were accounted for.

The research, published this month in the journal Hepatology, found 34% of people with hepatitis C also had a tattoo, compared to only 12% who did not have hepatitis C. While the study found a strong correlation, the research does not establish a direct connection between tattoos and the infection.

Hepatitis C is a blood infection, which is often contracted by sharing needles with someone who is infected, including injected drug use or from a blood transfusion prior to 1992. More than 3.2 million people in the U.S. have hepatitis C and 60% of new cases are a result of injected drug use.

Study Limits May Have Affected Results

The findings of the study are somewhat inconclusive, since researchers only included people in the study who did not contract hepatitis C from a transfusion or injected drug use. This may skew the results, considering many users are unlikely admit to illegal drug use.

Only 20% of people with hepatitis C have no history of injected drug use, greatly reducing the pool of study participants. Additionally, researchers did not exclude patients who contracted hepatitis C before getting a tattoo.

According to the study’s co-author, Fritz Francois, MD, of New York University Langone Medical Center, the findings are still relevant because a higher likelihood of having a tattoo may pose a higher risk of having hepatitis C.

Many people infected are unaware they have hepatitis C since the disease can lay dormant for years. Other people do not exhibit any symptoms, however, 70% of infected people develop cirrhosis and approximately 5% die from having cirrhosis.

Tattoos continue to remain a common practice, nearly one in five people reported having at least one tattoo in 2012.  Experts recommend only getting tattoos from a trained professional.

Experts advise consumers to be careful and diligent when choosing a tattoo artist as tattoo parlors are not federally regulated and standards can vary from state to state. They recommend choosing an artist who wears disposable gloves, maintains a clean work space and uses disposable needle kits. Most importantly, researchers advise those seeking to get a tattoo to be aware of the risk involved and the possibility of contracting hepatitis C in the process.

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