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What Are the Symptoms of Ink Poisoning?

By Marisa O'Connor
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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There are a few different signs and symptoms of ink poisoning to look out for, though they depend on what type of ink is used, whether it be writing ink, printer ink, or tattoo ink. Nausea and vomiting are symptoms of ingesting too much writing or printer ink. Nervous system damage and headaches can occur from swallowing printer ink, while poisoning from tattoo ink is often confused with symptoms of infection or an allergic reaction, such as swelling, pain, and a rash.

Writing ink, also called bottled ink, is the kind of ink used to write. This type of ink is considered non-toxic, as none of the ingredients are poisonous when separate or mixed together. Poisoning from writing ink is very rare, because more than an ounce of it must be consumed before problems occur. Printer ink is slightly more toxic than regular writing ink due to its more toxic ingredients. Problems from tattoo ink are a more common occurrence, primarily because the ingredients are not controlled and may contain toxins.

Writing ink poisoning, though rare, can occur if more than an ounce is ingested. The main symptom of ingesting large amounts of writing ink is nausea. If nausea is severe, the body may try to rid itself of the ink, and vomiting may occur. Another symptom of ingesting ink is staining of the skin and teeth inside the mouth. This type of poisoning is rarely fatal, but medical attention should be sought immediately.

Printer ink poisoning is significantly more common than poisoning from writing ink. This type of ink contains a toxic ingredient called p-Anisidine, which is responsible for the different colors of ink. If a large portion of printer ink is swallowed, this ingredient can result in nervous system damage. Headaches and nausea are also common symptoms of poisoning from printer ink.

There is much controversy around the possibility of tattoo ink poisoning. Many people argue that tattoo poisoning is impossible because the needle and ink never reach the bloodstream. When people talk about tattoo poisoning, they are more than likely talking about an allergic reaction or infection from the tattoo.

A rash, inflammation, and flaky or dry skin are some symptoms associated with tattoo ink poisoning. These are actually symptoms of an allergic reaction to the tattoo ink. It is almost always caused by a chemical used to color the ink, while black ink almost never causes a reaction.

Occasionally, a tattoo can cause swelling, redness, and even pus, which can be very alarming and is often associated with tattoo ink poisoning. Again here, this is not poisoning, but a bacterial infection. Infections can be prevented by making sure the tattoo artist uses a sterile needle. Most infections are mild and go away on their own, but serious infections can be transmitted, such as staph, hepatitis, and even HIV.

What Is Ink Poisoning?

Ink poisoning occurs when a toxic substance, or a substantial amount of a nontoxic substance, is ingested, inhaled, or touches the skin, eyes, or mucous membranes like the nose and mouth.

Generally, ink poisoning is associated with ink from pens or bottled ink. Myths and urban legends have also circled through generations concerning the danger of swallowing pen ink. According to Poison Control, ballpoint pens only contain a small amount of ink which is not harmful when swallowed.

Depending on the amount of ink entering the body, the type of ink, and the way the ink enters the body will determine the symptoms present during ink poisoning.

How To Avoid Writing Ink Poisoning

Fortunately, writing ink found in pens, highlighters, and markers is considered minimally toxic. Because it is a small amount, writing ink does not pose a serious ink poisoning concern.

However, if a pen accidentally jabs you and breaks your skin, treat it like you would treat a cut and apply antiseptic cream. If the wound worsens, seek medical help. 

How To Avoid Printer Ink Poisoning

Unlike writing ink, printer ink comes in larger amounts, such as printer cartridges or stamp pads.

Most modern-day inkjet printers use nontoxic ink so it is not a serious health concern if it comes in contact with your skin. If printer ink is somehow ingested, the printer ink will most likely be non-life-threatening. Regardless, do not ingest printer ink.

Although printer ink is nontoxic for humans, if your pet ingests it, immediately get them to the vet.

How To Avoid Tattoo Ink Poisoning and Infection

Most people dismiss tattoo poisoning as an infection or an allergic reaction. However, tattoo poisoning is possible for individuals who have extensive tattoo work on the body. The amount of tattoo art prolongs and exposes the skin to potential toxins.

With tattoo ink, toxins are absorbed through the skin that could produce a rash, blistering, or other symptoms.

Pick a Reliable Artist

Choose a tattoo artist who has a reputation for cleanliness and proper sanitation. The tattoo artist must be aware of the risks associated with permanent tattoos. There should also be noticeable, observed hygiene practices such as frequent handwashing, gloves, properly sanitized tools, and changing needles between clients. 

Choose Colors Wisely

A study measuring toxicity levels of popular tattoo ink colors (blue, green, red, and black) concluded that tattoo inks contain metal nanoparticles. Results also showed that the more toxic colors were red and green.

To reduce potential ink poisoning, consider the ink colors and toxicity levels when designing a tattoo.

Start Small

Like any other cosmetic, always test a product on a small area of your skin for potential reactions. If the tattoo is the first one ever, test the ink colors on a small area of your skin and monitor it for any possible allergic reactions such as swelling or pain.

Another factor to consider is the amount of skin the design will cover during one session. A larger surface area may take longer to heal and increase your chances of ink poisoning. 

Keep It Clean

Once the tattoo artist finishes with the design, take heed to the given care instructions. Be sure to keep the new tattoo clean and dry. 

Getting Help for Ink Poisoning

If ink poisoning is suspected, be sure to have the following information handy before calling for help.

  • Type of ink
  • Mode of entry (ingestion, skin absorption, inhalation, splashed in eyes)
  • Amount of ink
  • Brand, batch number, weight, the color of ink
  • The affected individual’s identifying information (name, date of birth, current condition, allergies, weight)
  • Time of the event (when the ingestion occurred)

Once that information is ready to be shared, contact Poison Control. The hotline will be able to provide the next steps. 

In the past, it was routine to take medication to induce vomiting to reduce the effects of poisoning. Now, that is no longer a recommendation. If someone is suspected of ink poisoning and they are not vomiting on their own, then do not induce vomiting. This may do more harm than good. 

If the individual suspected of ink poisoning is experiencing shortness of breath, loss of consciousness, seizures, or any extreme changes in behavior. Call 911 and seek immediate help. If symptoms are life-threatening, call for emergency medical services. Once the individual is in a more stable condition, contact Poison Control to ensure a full recovery.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By KoiwiGal — On Oct 18, 2013

I remember when I was at school there was a bit of an urban legend going around about a kid who died of ink poisoning from pens. The story went that he either chewed off the end of a pen and swallowed the ink, or was stabbed in the hand by a pen and it somehow got into his blood.

I honestly believed this story and I remember I was terrified when I managed to jab myself with a pen one time and broke the skin. Of course, nothing happened, but for a while there I was convinced I should go to the hospital or something.

By bythewell — On Oct 17, 2013

@irontoenail - There are all kinds of tattoo artists and I agree that it's a good idea to use one that is licensed and doesn't reuse needles.

But I think that people probably get tattoo ink poisoning symptoms from shady tattoo artists. I've heard of people buying kits off the internet and practicing on their family members, or even trying to make their own tattoo equipment and using ink from who knows where. Even if they don't cause poisoning, they could easily cause an infection.

And that's not even mentioning prison tattoos. In some cases they use ink containing heavy metals to the point where the person with the tattoos can't use an MRI machine because the magnets will injure their skin. I can well imagine someone being poisoned from that kind of tattoo.

By irontoenail — On Oct 16, 2013

I don't know if it's impossible for tattoo ink to ever reach the bloodstream. I definitely bled a little bit when I got my tattoo. I don't think the needle went very deep but maybe I have blood vessels quite close to the surface.

I would be more worried about the possibility of getting an infection from the needles than problems with the ink, to be honest. You should never get a tattoo without researching the artists thoroughly. Don't just get one on a whim. It might feel cool at the time, but you could end up with a disease or an ugly picture on your skin.

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