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Dr. Bill's Commentaries

Tattoos for diabetes   (May 1, 2009)

An upcoming case report to be presented at the AACE Annual Meeting will present the case for medical tattoos. As AACE's press release states, "One of the most obvious benefits of medical tattooing is for identification purposes in an emergency situation, especially for patients with diabetes, when a patient may be incapacitated-particularly in the case of hypoglycemic coma. However, it also poses some health concerns."

Indeed. As one doctor points out, "A tattoo for all practical purposes is an intentional wound." He suggests several important factors to keep a new tattoo from becoming infected:

* Keep blood glucose levels under tight control
* Keep the tattoo clean and bandaged.
* Cleanse the tattoo daily, using a wound dressing or bandage.

As with every topic under the sun, there are some interesting discussions on the Internet about tattoos for medical conditions (including diabetes) -- Googling the two terms "diabetes" and "tattoos" found quite a few, including the following, which I had no idea about: "Facebook, one of the popular social communities, has a community dedicated to it." I did find the group (search Facebook for "Awareness and Medical Tattoos") and there are presently 16 members, and some photos); there are some photos of diabetes tattoos at, or you can simply Google for images with the two words "diabetes" and "tattoos" and you'll find a bunch.

I think the most concerning issue is that many of these photos show tattoos that look like most other tattoos -- and Emergency Room staff hasn't yet been trained to oogle all the hearts and "Mom" tattoos to look for one that says "I have diabetes." Unless you tattoo it on your forehead (which I don't recommend!).

More to the point: bracelets or necklaces (or call them dogtags, if you're a macho guy who wouldn't wear a necklace) that identify a medical condition are much more common, and probably (IMHO) more socially acceptable. I strongly urge folks to use a specific brand of identification jewelry, but which has much more to offer: MedicAlert®: they have a 24-hour Emergency Response Hotline, with staff available to provide additional information and support to medical professionals who call the 800 number on the jewelry, helping them give you the best treatment possible. (Full disclosure: I'm a life member of MedicAlert.)

So should you get a diabetes tattoo? Your decision. If you do, remember the advice above to help keep it from getting infected. But I'd suggest MedicAlert instead.

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Dr. Bill Quick began writing at HealthCentral's diabetes website in November, 2006. These essays are reproduced at D-is-for-Diabetes with the permission of HealthCentral.

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