Belly button piercings are one of the most popular forms of body art. They’re generally safe if a professional does the piercing with the right needle in a clean environment. Unsanitary conditions and poor aftercare are the leading causes of bacterial infections after piercings.
It can take as long as six weeks to two years for a belly button piercing to heal completely. During that time, you’re at risk for infection. Even an injury to an old piercing may lead to infection. For example, if the piercing gets caught on pants or belt buckles.
How to tell it’s infected
When a piercing is new, it’s normal to see some swelling, redness, or discoloration around the site. You may also have some clear discharge that dries and forms a crystal-like crust around the piercing. These symptoms should get better over time, not worse.
Two of the most common complications are allergic reactions and bacterial infections. Allergic reactions happen if you’re allergic to the type of metal being used. For example, piercing jewelry made of nickel is known to cause allergic reactions in susceptible people.
Metals that are safe for body piercings include:
- surgical steel
- solid 14-karat or 18-karat gold
Bacterial infections arise when bacteria from dirt or foreign objects get into the open piercing while it’s still healing. Remember, piercings are open wounds that need to be kept clean.
Signs of an allergic reaction include:
- development of an itchy, inflamed rash around the piercing that spreads to a larger area
- a pierced hole that looks larger than before
- tenderness that may come and go
Signs of infection include:
- severe swelling with pain and redness
- yellow, green, gray, or brown discharge that has an odor
- red lines that radiate from the piercing site
- fever, chills, dizziness, upset stomach, or vomiting
How to clean an infected piercing
If you suspect an infection, don’t remove the jewelry on your own, unless your doctor tells you to do so. Most piercings don’t need to be removed to treat infections. Keeping the piercing hole open allows pus to drain. Allowing the hole to close may trap the infection inside of your body, causing an abscess to form.
Cleaning your piercing is important, both to prevent and treat an infection. Experts recommend cleaning a piercing no more than twice each day. Use a saltwater mixture (1/2 teaspoon sea salt per 1 cup of water) to help remove any dried healing secretions followed by a gentle, mild antibacterial soap and water cleansing, or you could use either one of these cleansing methods alone. Do not use alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, as these can dry out your skin and irritate the area around the piercing.
First, remember to wash your hands with an antibacterial soap. Then use a cotton swab and your cleaning solution to gently wipe the area around your belly button and the ring. Pat the area dry with a clean towel.
Place a warm compress on the infected piercing. This can help the pus drain and cause the swelling to go down. Wet a compress, such as a warm washcloth, with your cleaning solution. Place the compress on the piercing. Gently dry the area with a clean towel after using the wet cloth.
Using an antibacterial cream — not an ointment — often clears up minor infections. Ointments are greasy and may block oxygen from getting to the wound, complicating the healing process.
You can buy over-the-counter antibacterial cream, such as Neosporin, but there is a risk for allergic irritation of the skin with this type of product. If you don’t have an allergy with over-the-counter antibiotic cream, you can carefully clean the piercing site, and then follow the directions on the container.
See your doctor
Contact your doctor immediately if you experience any significant signs of infection, especially a fever or nausea. Even minor infections can get worse without treatment. Your doctor may need to prescribe an antibiotic cream such as Bactroban (mupirocin) or an oral antibiotic.