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Think before you ink, the hidden risk tattoos may pose to your vision

As they grow in popularity, The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital’s Associate Professor Ehud Zamir and Associate Professor Lyndell Lim say that there is a hidden risk to our vision when getting a tattoo that too many Australians are unaware of before they go under the needle.

Uveitis is a serious, potentially blinding inflammation of the inner structures of the eye (the uvea). It may present suddenly and symptoms include pain, redness and blurry vision in one or both eyes. If left untreated it can result in permanent vision loss.

A link between tattoos and uveitis has been suggested since the 1950’s, but it is in recent years that a component of tattoo ink has been identified as a possible trigger – important news for the estimated 14.5% of Australians who have at least one tattoo and even more important for those considering getting their first permanent statement.

There have already been more than five cases of tattoo related uveitis in the last year at the Eye and Ear and more are expected.

Associate Professor Lim believes this is due to the increasing popularity of tattoos in recent years. “What has happened as their popularity has increased is that a nasty condition we once considered rare is becoming more common,” she said.

Affected patients present with visual symptoms and often signs of tattoo elevation or irritation around the tattoo site, which causes the skin to look bumpy and inflamed. Many do not realize the seriousness of the condition.

“It was a shock, I felt like I was in good health until then,” says Yola Mokdissi who was only diagnosed after several years of illness and unexplained inflammation around her tattoo and a bout of right eye uveitis. “I thought whatever illness I had was causing the tattoos to raise and not the tattoo causing it.”

Treatment for uveitis is not to be taken lightly, as it can involve the use of corticosteroids tablets, injections or immunosuppressant drugs that pose their own set of serious side effects. In extreme cases, surgery to implant slow-release corticosteroid medication into the eye may even be necessary.

Tattoo age does not have a bearing on your risk of developing the inflammation. Symptoms can present as late as 6 months to 10 years after tattooing. Laser removal of tattoos is also not the answer, as symptoms can worsen when the tattoo is disturbed.

In some people, tattoo associated uveitis may be an indicator of underlying sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that can cause long-term problems for the lungs, kidneys, heart and nervous system if left untreated.

Assoc Prof.  Lyndell Lim urges those with tattoos not to be complacent. “The public health message should be to consider your vision in addition to other potential health risks when getting a tattoo and if you do have symptoms of uveitis, act quickly to seek specialist care.”

Assoc Prof. Ehud Zamir agrees: “Think about the risks before you get a tattoo. Tattoos are permanent and so is serious vision loss.”

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