JUN 06, 2017 12:19 PM PDT

Flesh-Eating Bacteria Infects New Tattoo, Kills Man


Not heeding the conventional wisdom of avoiding swimming in open waters with a new tattoo, a 31-year-old man contracted a flesh-eating bacteria infection that cost him his life.

Image credit: pixabay.com

According to the BMJ Case Reports, the patient received a new tattoo on his right calf. Just five days later, when the tattoo would still be considered fresh and not fully healed, the patient went for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico. This is where doctors believed he contracted Vibrio vulificus, a flesh-eating bacteria that lives in warm coastal waters.

The patient reportedly came down with fevers and chills days after his swim. At the hospital, his wound was already highly inflamed and he soon progressed to septic shock. He later died due to complications related to multi-organ failure. Doctors believe his pre-existing condition of chronic liver disease, caused by alcohol addiction, may have played a role in the bacteria’s aggressive and, ultimately, lethal nature.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, V. vulificus can infect people through two methods. The first is by consuming raw or uncooked shellfish contaminated with the bacteria. This type of infection, known as vibriosis, is usually not fatal – usual symptoms include gastrointestinal problems.

The second method is more life-threatening because the bacteria can enter the bloodstream through an open wound. The infection would cause ulcers and necrosis as skin around the wound begins to break down. This is likely what happened to the patient, as his fresh tattoo can be considered a type of skin wound.

Tattoos can be thought of as an inflammatory process. Each time a needle punctures the dermis and delivers an ink load, the body sends macrophages to the wound site to "eat" the foreign pigment particles in an attempt to clean the wound. The permanence effect, after the tattoo has healed, comes from the dermis layer trapping the stained macrophages.

The CDC reports that V. vulnificus is present from May to October in warm coastal waters. The officials say the best chances of preventing infection of this potentially deadly bacteria is to avoid eating raw shellfish, and protect all exposed wounds from the seawaters when swimming.

Still, they underscore that deaths stemming from V. vulnificus infections are relatively rare. Of the 80,000 infected cases in the US per year, they say around 100 cases are fatal. However, there’s no need to risk it if you can help it.

Additional source: Live Science


About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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