Signs and Treatment of an Infected Belly Button Piercing
Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, board-certified infectious disease physician and senior scholar at John Hopkins University, stresses that "any time something breaches the skin—a key component of the immune system—there will be a risk of infection. Any type of pollutant, whether it's from your sweat, unclean water, or dirty fingers, can easily be the culprit. Meticulous hygiene is important to diminish this risk in the early days after a piercing." You must wash your piercing twice daily with a salt solution and clean cotton swab to prevent bacterial growth and infection.
Many people mistake signs of healing for an infection. You may experience persistent redness around the belly button, soreness, or pain that is simply a symptom of healing. Below we will discuss the signs of an infected belly button piercing versus a healing one, and learn how to treat an infection.
Signs of an Infected Belly Button Piercing
Sometimes it can be hard to tell if your piercing is infected or just irritated. Pay close attention because an infection gets worse, whereas a little time may soothe an irritation. Proper aftercare should prevent any problems, but some people are just more prone to complications than others.
Definite Signs of Infection
- Redness around the piercing, especially redness that grows more intense
- Greenish-yellow, brown, gray, or off-white discharge
- Red lines radiating from the piercing site
- Burning sensation
- Increasing and persistent swelling around the piercing area
- Growing abdominal pain (a little soreness is okay as long as it doesn't get worse)
- Foul odor from discharge
- Skin around the piercing is warm or hot to the touch
- Fever and/or nausea
- Discharge: If it's yellowish-green, you might have an infection.
- Pain around the piercing: Although you can expect some bruising and sharp pain, continuing severe pain means there's something wrong.
Not Likely to Be an Infection
- Crustiness or what looks like dead skin. This can be dry skin caused by over-cleaning. Unless it's accompanied by another symptom, you're probably okay.
- Mild redness
- Clear or very light yellow discharge is normal in a healing piercing
If you have one of the clear signs of infection, you should start treating immediately to prevent further complications like abscess formation. If you think your piercing might be infected, do NOT remove the jewelry. Doing so can block in the infection, causing an abscess beneath the skin. You want to have proper drainage so that the infection can heal.
How to Treat an Infected Belly Button Piercing
Below are the instructions provided by Dr. Ryan Neinstein, Plastic Surgeon MD, on how to properly treat a belly button piercing infection. Follow these instructions closely and carefully.
- DO NOT remove the jewelry, especially if you are experiencing drainage. If you remove the jewelry, the piercing will not drain properly and the bacteria will get trapped inside your body, which can cause an abscess to form as the hole closes up.
- Wash your hand with antibacterial soap before you proceed to clean your piercing.
- Clean the piercing with a saline solution or a salt water mixture (1 tsp. of sea salt and 5 oz. of warm water). You can use a clean cotton swab to rub the solution on the piercing, or you can turn the cup with the solution upside down on your piercing while laying down to submerge it completely for 10 minutes. This will kill the bacteria causing the infection. Do this no more than twice a day.
- Consider using an antiseptic cream for a mild infection (not an ointment). You don't want to leave a gob of it around the piercing, as this can attract more bacteria. Just put a little on the piercing and wipe away the excess. Try carefully pushing the jewelry in and out so that you can get some of the antibiotic cream into the wound.
- If there isn't any pus, consider using a hot compress to increase blood circulation to the area. (Make sure to disinfect the compress with hot water and salt.) Wipe the area dry after using.
- If there is pus, you can try using hydrogen peroxide to help drain the pus and clean the area, but NEVER overuse hydrogen peroxide—don't use it more often than once a day—and do not use it as an aftercare option on a new piercing, as it can dry it out and irritate it. Don't use alcohol either as this can dry out the area and create further cracking and irritation, and in some cases, spread an existing infection.
- You can also apply some diluted tea tree oil, but don't do this more than two to three times a week because tea tree oil is very astringent and extremely drying. Avoid tea tree oil if you have sensitive skin.
- Go to the doctor immediately if you experience fever or nausea. You may need antibiotics, especially if the infection is spreading.
If you think that your belly button piercing is infected, don't ignore the symptoms and hope the infection goes away on its own. You want to treat it before it develops into an abscess or spreads to your abdomen.
Healing Belly Button Piercing vs. Infected
As you can see from the photo, a healing belly button piercing will have redness and some crustiness that is concentrated around the area of the piercing only. If you have an infection, the redness will spread to the larger abdomen area, it will feel hot and painful, and there will be foul-smelling puss oozing out of the site of infection.
Why Do I Still Feel Pain?
It is completely normal to feel pain during and after a navel piercing. You may also feel soreness for up to a year because this is how long it takes a belly piercing to fully heal.
However, if the pain gets worse over time and there are other accompanying symptoms, such as green or yellow discharge, a foul smell, or a burning sensation, then you may have an infection. Seek professional help right away before the infection spreads!
Taking Care of an Infected Belly Button Piercing
Belly Piercing Healing Time
According to Dr. Neinstein, "In general, your piercing should heal by the 3-6 month mark, however, each person varies in the pace at which they heal. In some cases, a person may experience discomfort for up to one year. The key is to distinguish between discomfort and an actual infection." In other words, a navel piercing may look healed after three to six weeks, but it can take six months to a year to fully heal, no matter how good it looks on the outside.
Because it takes six to 12 months for a navel piercing to fully heal, it is very common to experience redness, soreness/pain, and swelling for up to a year. Do not mistake these signs for an infection.
Signs of a Healing Belly Button Piercing
- The piercing is red or pink. As long as it is not inflamed or painful, this is normal. It's normal to see red or pink skin for up to a year.
- There is some itchiness in the first few weeks.
- Clear discharge or puss that dries and forms a crust around the holes.
- Some discoloration.
- You may be sore for up to a year. This is normal.
- Swelling for up to a year.
- After four to six weeks, the skin around the piercing should be the same color as the rest of the skin on your belly. This is a positive sign that your navel piercing is healing, however, it is not fully healed until it has been at least six months.
These signs should get better over a year, not worse. If irritation gets worse, then you either have an infection or an allergic reaction.
You may also experience itchiness, swelling, and redness if you're suffering from an allergic reaction to the kind of metal in your jewelry.
Symptoms of an Allergic Reaction Include:
- Itchy, spreading rash around piercing area
- A pierced hole that looks bigger than it was before
- Tenderness that comes and goes
If you're having an allergic reaction, see your piercer immediately to have the jewelry replaced.
Best Navel Piercing Jewelry for Sensitive Skin
The best jewelry for a belly button piercing is going to be made of a hypoallergenic metal that is good for sensitive skin.
- Titanium: This is the safest metal for people with sensitive skin.
- Niobium: Similar to titanium. Good for sensitive skin.
- Surgical Stainless Steel: Surgical steel is a bit cheaper than titanium and is a very common metal used for body jewelry. It is safe to use, but it is not 100% biocompatible like titanium is. Most people can tolerate it just fine, but people with sensitive skin should choose titanium instead.
- Platinum: Most people with sensitive skin can tolerate platinum, but it is a very expensive metal.
- Gold: Gold is gorgeous, but it is easily rejected by the body. Some people may be able to pull off wearing it without any irritation once their piercing has healed, but gold should not be used on new piercings. Once the piercing has fully healed, choose 14k or 18k gold. Do not use gold-platted jewelry.
- Silver: Again, only use pure silver to minimize the risk of an allergic reaction.
How to Prevent a Navel Piercing Infection
The best way to prevent an infection is to take good care of your new piercing from day one. Do not touch the navel area unless you are cleaning it, and always wash your hands before you start cleaning. Remember to use new cotton balls or swabs to gently wipe the area around your piercing, and then pat dry with a clean towel.
You can also prevent an infection by choosing a reputable professional piercer who uses a sanitized piercing needle rather than a piercing gun.
How to Clean a Belly Piercing
Wash your hands with antibacterial soap. Then soak a clean cotton swab with a salt solution (1 tsp. of sea salt and 5 oz. of warm water), and gently dab on the piercing area. Allow the area to dry completely before wearing clothes. Do not use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol to clean as this will dry out and irritate the skin.
How to Help Your Belly Piercing Heal Faster
Follow these aftercare dos and don'ts to help your piercing heal faster.
- Always wash your hands with antibacterial soap before and after cleaning your piercing!
- Use clean cotton swabs or Q-tips instead of towels or loofahs as these can snag (they also harbor bacteria).
- Use a salt solution (not table salt) to soak the site twice a day for the first few weeks, and at least once a day until healed.
- Leave the jewelry in place for the duration of the healing period (6 months).
- Wear loose clothing so that you don't cause friction and to allow the piercing to breathe.
- Sleep on your back to keep your piercing breathing at night.
- Keep all articles of clothing and items that come into contact with the piercing and associated area clean, especially until fully healed. Remember not only clothing comes into contact with this area regularly, but also household staples, such as bath towels and bed sheets. During the summer months, beach towels should be kept extra clean during this time.
- Do not fiddle with the jewelry or change the jewelry, until the piercing is healed.
- Avoid over-cleaning your piercing since this can cause irritation. Clean it no more than twice a day.
- Do not use alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. This can dry out the skin and cause further irritation.
- Avoid using ointments, which prevent your skin from breathing. The excess moisture could also be a breeding ground for bacteria.
- Avoid tanning beds until you are fully healed.
- Avoid wearing dangly belly-button jewelry at any time during the life of your navel piercing; dangling or heavy jewelry can cause irritation.
- Avoid using CBR's (captive bead rings) and other round rings, as this can irritate the piercing, and these rings will snag much easier than a banana barbell. Snagging can irritate and even tear the piercing, depending on how hard the jewelry is pulled.
- Avoid swimming or spending a prolonged period of time with your piercing in water.
What's the Best Starter Belly Button Ring?
If this is your first time getting a navel piercing, a good belly button jewelry to start off with is a 14-gauge titanium curved barbell ring. 14g is the standard size for most belly rings, titanium is the safest metal, and a curved barbell is the best for preventing infections because it sits closer to your body than other types of jewelry and is less likely to snag on clothes or move around a lot.
After you've fully healed, you can opt for more elaborate jewelry as shown in this gallery of different types of navel piercings.
How Soon Can You Remove Your Belly Ring?
Wait at least 6 months before changing your belly button ring. If you do it sooner, you will risk infection because the piercing is likely not fully healed. Some people report changing jewelry after 6-8 weeks with no infection, but this doesn't mean it can't happen. To be extra safe, wait at least 6 months.
What to Look for in a Professional Piercer
To prevent an infection, make sure you go to a professional piercer at a reputable piercing shop.
- Does the studio have a license? The license should be in plain sight when you enter their shop.
- Is the studio clean? Make sure there is a separate area for piercing and another dedicated area for cleaning and sterilizing equipment.
- Is the shop using an autoclave to clean their tools? If not, run! Every professional shop should be sanitizing their equipment using a machine called an autoclave sterilizer.
- Ask them if they do belly button piercings using a gun or a needle. If they say they use a gun, then find another shop. Piercing guns should not be used on any part of the body other than the ears. They are a haven for bacteria, and any professional piercer would know that the safest way to pierce the navel is with a piercing needle.
- Can they show a portfolio of their work? A full portfolio indicates that people trust this piercer and have had good results.
Prepare Yourself for Your Piercing
Navel piercings are one of the most popular piercings for females, after the basic earlobe piercing, and are most common among youth between 12 and 18, but that doesn't mean that middle-aged women can't sport a navel ring.
Because this kind of piercing is quite common, there is a lot of information on the web about it, but not all of the information is accurate.
Before you get your piercing, do some research to make sure that you get the right information and the proper knowledge before you show up at the tattoo shop. If you are informed, you'll find your healing time will be a breeze, and you'll reduce any potential risks.
Risks of Belly Button Piercing
Belly button piercings are commonly placed on the upper rim of the navel, but they can also be placed on the bottom, left, and right rim.
Whatever the location, there are basic risks that should be considered.
The navel area is subject to sweating, bending, and irritation. Sitting, running, turning around, and other activities can irritate the piercing, as can tight clothes and activities that involve a lot of motion or contact.
Possible Complications Include:
- Infection (the most common problem with belly button piercings)
- Excessive bleeding and nerve damage (which may be caused by an inexperienced body piercer that pierces the navel too close to a nerve)
- Allergic reactions to the jewelry. Stainless steel, eight-karat gold, and titanium are ideal for piercings
- Keloids (thick scarring at the piercing site)
- Migration or rejection of the piercing
Causes for Concern Include:
- Jewelry of the wrong size, type, or metal. Jewelry that is too small may cut off blood supply, as can jewelry that is very thin or too heavy. CBR's and rings can irritate the piercing, and can snag more easily, potentially causing irritation and tears.
- Jewelry of the wrong metal can cause allergic reactions.
- Piercings performed with piercing guns. This causes too much trauma to the piercing site, especially as piercing guns only use stud jewelry, which is WAY too small for a navel piercing, and the piercing gun itself cannot be properly sterilized.
If you want to get a navel piercing, make sure that you choose a professional body piercer. You also want to make sure that you know the proper aftercare processes so that you don't irritate it.
Infections Are Serious. Get Your Parents' Permission.
Because an infection can be pretty serious, and something that shouldn't be messed with, you want to be very careful. This is one of the main reasons that I recommend young teens not get a piercing without their parents' permission.
If an infection develops, you will have to tell your parents, which will get you into bigger trouble because you went behind their back to do something you were told not to do.