Complete healing can take 9–12 months. In the meantime, a piercing is technically a healing wound, and it may be sore, red, or irritated. Intense pain, swelling, or a fever, however, can indicate a severe infection.
It can be challenging to keep a belly button piercing clean and irritation-free, especially when there tends to be friction from clothing. This makes belly button piercings more prone to infection than piercings in other areas.
What are the signs?
Red skin around the piercing could indicate an infection.
Some signs of an infected belly button piercing include:
- intense pain or a burning sensation at the site
- bright red skin around the piercing, or red streaks coming from it
- a fever
- discharge, which may smell bad, from the piercing
- a swollen bump near the piercing
Distinguishing between signs of infection and regular healing can be difficult. Pain and swelling right after a piercing are common.
It is important to monitor how symptoms change. If symptoms, such as pain, steadily improve, the piercing is probably healing normally.
If a person suddenly experiences new symptoms, especially after a period of few or no symptoms, this can signal an infection.
The piercing process itself can transmit blood-borne infections, such as HIV and hepatitis B and C. The risk is greater when piercing equipment and jewelry are not sterile, especially when the piercing needles have been shared.
Always choose a safe piercer. Anyone who is unsure whether their piercing conditions were sterile should consider being tested for these infections.
An infection can spread from a piercing throughout the body. In some cases, the infection can cause life-threatening complications.
Anyone with a weakened immune system should talk to a doctor before getting a piercing and immediately seek medical care for any signs of infection.
Causes of belly button piercing irritation
Issues other than infection can cause pain or discomfort around a belly button piercing. See a doctor about any new or unusual symptoms, as the cause can be difficult to identify.
Allergies to the metal in body jewelry are common. Jewelry containing nickel is especially likely to trigger an allergic reaction.
The Association of Professional Piercers recommend using metals, such as surgical steel, titanium, or nickel-free gold, that are less likely to cause reactions.
They also suggest using smooth jewelry, free from bumps or nicks that might irritate the skin.
Allergic reactions usually begin as soon as a person inserts the jewelry into the piercing. The reaction may be intense, involving a painful rash or swelling, or it may be minor but grow steadily worse.
When clothing or other objects catch on navel jewelry, it can injure and tear the skin.
If the jewelry has caught on something, and the new piercing looks larger or feels painful, a person may have an injury.
These injuries increase the chance of infection. They can also change the shape of the piercing or cause it to heal incorrectly.
See a doctor about the injury and consult a professional piercer to see if the piercing requires redoing.
A rash, redness, peeling, or irritation could stem from a preexisting skin disorder. Injuries to the skin can trigger some disorders, such as psoriasis, and a piercing is one such form of injury.
Diagnosing an infection
A doctor can usually diagnose an infection by looking at the piercing.
When there is no infection, but the skin shows signs of irritation, a doctor will ask about recent changes involving the piercing, such as using a new cleaning solution or jewelry made from a different metal.
The doctor can usually diagnose the cause of irritation after performing an examination and taking a complete medical history. However, the doctor may also need to take blood tests or a sample of the skin.
When to see a doctor
A person should see a doctor within 24 hours if they experience intense pain in the pierced area.
A serious piercing infection can spread to other areas of the body.
An entry from 2011 in BMJ Case Reports describes damage to the intestines that had been caused by a belly button piercing and resulted in death. However, the person had pierced themselves, and the authors described the piercing as very unusual.
It is important to be cautious and contact a doctor if symptoms of infection do not resolve quickly.
A person should see a doctor within 24 hours if:
- they have a disease that weakens the immune system
- the pain is intense
- they have a fever
- the piercing site has sustained an injury
- a bad smell is coming from the piercing.
- the piercing site shows signs of redness and warmth, or there are red streaks on the skin
See a doctor within a few days if:
- symptoms of infection are not improving
- an allergic reaction did not resolve after taking out the piercing
- symptoms of infection are getting worse, or there are new symptoms
What are the treatment options?
A person may be able to treat a minor infection at home.
It can help to:
- wash the hands before touching the piercing
- cleanse the area with a piercing cleaning solution
- apply an antibiotic ointment to the infection
- avoid removing the piercing unless a doctor suggests doing so
An infection may need medical treatment, and antibiotics are usually effective.
A doctor may recommend removing the jewelry and allowing the piercing to close, or replacing low-quality jewelry with some made from a metal less likely to irritate the skin.
The piercer should wear gloves and use sterilized equipment to reduce the risk of infection.
Excellent piercing care can help prevent infection.
To reduce the risk of infection:
- Choose a licensed piercer who sterilizes equipment and never reuses needles. The piercer should take their time and wear gloves while placing the piercing.
- Consider asking a doctor for a referral to a reliable piercer.
- Use only high-quality, piercing-grade jewelry.
- Follow the piercer’s instructions about keeping the piercing clean. This usually involves washing the piercing regularly and touching it only with clean hands.
- Do not allow anyone to touch or kiss the piercing until it heals completely.
It may not be advisable to get a piercing:
- in an area with a skin infection
- if a person has a condition that weakens the immune system
- if a person has a history of infected piercings
It may be a good idea to go to a member of the Association of Professional Piercers, an organization that requires members to practice safe piercing and provides related education.
A piercing is an injury to the skin that takes time to heal. Caring for the piercing as if it were any other sort of wound can significantly lower the risk of infection.
If a piercing becomes infected, see a doctor as soon as possible for quick relief.
Receiving prompt treatment can increase the likelihood that the piercing heals properly and does not require removal.