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Medic Alert Tattoos: A Guide for the Uninitiated

Medical alert tattoos continue to gain in popularity. If you have a medical condition that emergency services and health professionals should be aware of in the event that you're unable to express yourself, a prominently placed tattoo can be a lifesaver.

What to Consider

If you've got a serious but potentially temporary condition, a permanent medical tattoo might not be the best idea. You could actually be putting yourself at risk by having a tattoo indicating a condition that you no longer have. In this situation, there’s a significant risk that you’ll be treated or given medication taking into account an illness that you don’t have.

On the plus side, having a tattoo in an obvious and clearly visible place means that you have to worry less about losing your medical identification card or jewelry. However, in the event of a medical emergency, it's possible that emergency personnel won't go looking for a tattoo. They aren’t trained to search your body for a tattoo. They’ll check for medic alert jewelry and they will look in your wallet for a medical ID card, but they won’t specifically look for a tattoo. So, if you're thinking about getting a medical tattoo, it's advisable to use it as just a part of your medical identification and keep using more traditional methods, too.

Before you dash out and get a medical tattoo, talk to your doctor to ensure it's safe to have a tattoo with your medical condition. If you're prone to infections, have lots of allergies, or have a condition that presents with excessive bleeding, a medical tattoo is not the right option for you. Make sure you do your research, too. Choose a tattooist with all the right certifications and an exemplary reputation. If possible, go to a tattoo artist with experience in creating medical alert tattoo designs. Remember that a medical tattoo is useless if medical personnel can't see it, so have yours put in a prominent place like the inside of your wrist. It needs to be big enough to be clearly visible, but many people don’t like to have something too large in such a visible location, so choosing the right size is something of a juggling act.

Medical Alert Tattoo Designs

There is no universal standard for medic alert tattoo designs. You can literally have whatever design you want. It's advisable, however, to choose something simple, bold, and easy to recognize. Popular options include the Rod of Asclepius, the Star of Life, and the blue circle of diabetes awareness. The Rod of Asclepius has been associated with medicine and healing since Ancient Greece and is a symbol synonymous with the Greek god Asclepius. You’ll also frequently see the caduceus used as a medic alert symbol, even though, strictly speaking, it’s not a medical symbol. It’s actually a symbol of trade and negotiation but, after much confusion, was adopted by the U.S Army Medical Corps in 1902, so it has become erroneously synonymous with medicine in the United States. And, because it’s widely recognized, it’s a perfectly valid choice for a medic alert tattoo design.

Many people choose their preferred symbol, the words "medic alert," and the name of their condition. Other people also choose to list their allergies alongside the medical alert symbol. Keep the writing simple. It’s a life-saving device, not a sonnet. Forget the flowery prose and stick to your condition and, if applicable, your allergies. Symbol, condition, allergies are really all you need. A clean, simple tattoo with perhaps a splash of color and few words will quickly draw the eye.

Some people want to make sure their wishes are known and respected, but feel that a standard DNR form or carrying an organ donor card is not enough. So, to plan for the worst, they choose to have a health directive or final wish tattoo. For example, an increasingly popular option is to have a "do not resuscitate" tattoo across the chest. It’s important to know, however, that tattoos are not legally binding, so health personnel do not have to heed the tattoo if they are not certain that a legal DNR exists. An organ donor tattoo is also not legally binding, but it does tell health professionals and reassures your loved ones of your wishes.