Man Dies After His Tattoo Gets Infected with Ocean Bacteria

(Image credit: Tatiana Morozova/Dreamstime)

A 31-year-old man died after he went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and his tattoo became infected with flesh-eating bacteria that live in ocean water, according to a new report.

The man had recently gotten a tattoo on his right calf. Despite the common advice to avoid swimming for a few weeks after getting a new tattoo, the man went for a swim in the ocean just five days after he received the tattoo, according to the report, published May 27 in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

A few days later, he developed a fever and chills, and his skin became red over his tattoo and on other parts of his legs. Soon after the man arrived at the hospital, the red, painful lesions on his legs turned purple, and he developed large blisters filled with fluid.

Doctors were alarmed at the rapid worsening of the man's lesions, and strongly suspected he had an infection with Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that lives in warm coastal waters. In rare cases, the bacteria can enter the body through an open wound, destroy tissue and cause life-threatening bloodstream infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The man also previously suffered from alcoholic cirrhosis, which is a liver disease related to drinking alcohol and is known to increase the risk of V. vulnificus infection, the report said. [5 Weird Ways Tattoos Affect Your Health]

He was treated with antibiotics, but developed septic shock, a complication that occurs when an infection leads to dangerously low blood pressure.

After further treatment in the hospital — including medications to raise his blood pressure and treatments to clean his wounds — the man's condition began to improve. Within a few weeks, he was well enough to start a rehabilitation program. But afterward, his condition worsened again, and about two months later, he died due to complications related to liver damage, kidney failure and destroyed tissue in his skin lesions, the report said.

Although V. vulnificus infections can be life-threatening, serious illness from the bacteria is rare: The CDC estimates that among the 80,000 people in the U.S. who become sick with Vibrio bacteria per year, about 100 people die from the infection.

The bacteria more commonly cause foodborne illness in people who eat seafood contaminated with V. vulnificus, including raw or undercooked shellfish.

It's not clear exactly why people with liver disease are at higher risk for infection with V. vulnificus, but it may be due in part to a weakened immune system. The researchers stressed that people with chronic liver disease should avoid eating raw oysters and avoid swimming in seawater when they have open wounds.

It's also recommended that anyone who gets a tattoo waits until the tattoo heals — which can take several weeks — before going swimming or immersing his or her body in water, according to Healthline.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.