Infection of the belly button (omphalitis) most commonly occurs in newborn babies. Adults can get an infection of the navel (umbilicus) but it’s uncommon. There are many reasons your belly button may become red, swollen or have discharge, and it may not be a skin issue.
Here I share what you need to know and how to treat a belly button infection.
Belly Button Infection and Discharge
What can cause a belly button infection?
The navel is an ideal location for skin infection. It is folded, sweaty, and often not bathed well, so dead cells and microorganisms can build up. A variety of microbes of the navel skin (the microbiome) naturally colonize the skin and folds of the navel.
It is common to have foul-smelling, macerated white dead skin (belly button cheese!), dirt and lint trapped in the folds. When the resident microbes flourish out of control on this feast, they can go from friendly to infecting.
Over-proliferation of these microbes can result in germs entering deeper layers of skin causing infection. Tenderness, yellow, green or bloody foul-smelling discharge, swelling, pain, and a scab or ulcer can develop in the belly button.
If deep skin infection occurs, it can lead to cellulitis – a spreading bacterial infection usually caused by staph or strep bacteria. Treatment of navel cellulitis requires oral or IV antibiotics.
Common questions about belly button infections
What are common skin rashes you get in your belly button?
Skin rashes such as eczema, intertrigo, psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis can cause redness of the navel, but they are not infections.
The belly button skin will be red, may itch and can develop scale and a foul smell that looks a lot like an infection.
Eczema is a general term for several types of eczematous rashes. These include atopic dermatitis (a genetic form of eczema) and allergic or irritation rashes. A rash might flare up in the belly button because there’s been an allergic reaction to metal jewelry, for example.
Irritant dermatitis of the navel is most commonly due to soaps and body cleansers. When they are not washed off, they can cause redness and irritation. To prevent this, use a gentle, hypoallergenic body cleanser. My Naturally Best Bar Soap is ideal because I have made sure that it is fragrance free, hypoallergenic and gentle.
Intertrigo is inflammation and redness that is common in skin folds, including the navel. The rash occurs because of skin fold friction, sweat and bacteria. Fungal and yeast microorganisms also interplay to exacerbate skin redness.
People most at risk of intertrigo are those who are overweight, very sweaty, have diabetes, or who have poor hygiene.
If not treated, intertrigo can lead to a belly button infection.
Psoriasis and seborrhea
With psoriasis, red and scaly lesions can appear on the elbows, knees, back, legs, and scalp. Sometimes, the redness is in skin folds, too (called inverse psoriasis).
Seborrhea is a similar rash with scaly, red skin on the scalp, ears and central face.
Why does my belly button smell?
Dead skin cells, sweat and the action of bacteria and yeast which break this material down cause a putrid, bad smell. There can even be a moist discharge.
Smelly puss from the belly button may indicate an infection, or it may indicate that you need better hygiene for your navel. It is important to consult your doctor.
Why do I have discharge from my belly button?
Aside from a belly button skin infection, it is rare and concerning for adults to have a significant discharge from the belly button.
Usually, discharge is due to foreign material, such as lint or hair. It can also be due to post-laparoscopic surgical tracts or cysts from embryological abnormalities that may connect to deeper abdominal structures.
Significant puss from the belly button can indicate an infection, cyst or bigger health problem. Discharge from the belly button should always be evaluated by your doctor.
What are cellulitis and candidiasis, and what are the symptoms?
Cellulitis is a deep skin infection. The skin looks red and swollen and it may be painful to touch.
The navel is naturally colonized by bacteria. Overgrowth of bacteria can lead to inflammation that creates breaks in the skin barrier that allow bacteria to invade, grow and proliferate causing cellulitis.
Candidiasis is caused by candida yeast that thrives in warm, moist skin folds like the navel. This skin infection is evidenced by an increase in belly button moistness, redness, and often, little pustules along the edge of the red skin (called satellite pustules).
What causes an infected sebaceous cyst, and what are the symptoms?
Any part of skin with pores can develop a sebaceous cyst, including the belly button. A sebaceous cyst is a hair follicle that becomes blocked or closed, and then the lining cells proliferate into a cyst.
Sebaceous cysts in the navel can become rubbed or squished by waistbands of clothing. This can lead to inflammation and subsequent infection. Infected sebaceous cysts may rupture and drain.
What other cysts can form in the belly button?
There are other types of cysts that can form in the navel. Some may be connected to deeper abdominal structures and not be a superficial skin problem.
One such important belly button cyst is the urachal cyst. This occurs during embryonic development when a baby is forming in the mother’s womb.
During embryonic development, fetal urine exits through a small tube in the umbilical cord called the urachus. Typically, at birth, this closes off. Occasionally it doesn’t close properly, and a cyst can form. This can become infected and lead to bloody or cloudy fluid from the navel.
What might cause a growth or swelling in the navel?
Keloids are one cause. They are enlarged, raised scars usually from surgery or piercing. Skin on the midline portion of the body is prone to keloids. These excessively large scars can be quite tender.
Other benign skin lesions such as moles, seborrheic keratosis, warts, and cutaneous horns can also be seen as growths in the navel. These typically have no symptoms.
What cancers and tumors can occur in the belly button?
The navel is in an interesting location on the body. It can develop skin cancers like other parts of the skin. However, unlike other areas of the skin, tumors specifically migrate to the navel.
The first sign of a tumor may be a bump in the navel. Tumors can be cancerous and non-cancerous.
Tumors in the belly button include:
- Endometriosis (benign tissue from overgrowth of the uterus)
- Metastatic Crohn’s disease
- Metastatic cancers from distant sites, such as the Sister Mary Joseph nodule.
What is the Sister Mary Joseph nodule of the umbilicus?
The Sister Mary Joseph nodule is a metastatic cancer sign that every medical student learns about in medical school and every doctor sees at least a few times during their career.
Sister Mary Joseph, a surgical nurse for Dr. William Mayo, first described it in the mid-20th century, and it was named after her in 1960. It is an umbilical metastasis of an intra-abdominal cancer.
The Sister Mary Joseph nodule is often the only indication of an early cancer, so it is not to be missed.
Cancers such as stomach, colon, pancreas, gallbladder, small intestine, ovary, uterus, cervix, urinary, and even breast and lung can present as a tumor in the navel.
It is not known why early tumors tend to migrate to the navel. It could be related to retained anatomical features from a baby’s abdominal organs and lymphatic drainage system and how they were connected in the womb during embryologic development.
Can hernias occur in the navel?
Yes, umbilical (navel) hernias are another cause of a swelling or bump near the navel. They happen when abdominal tissue, potentially including intestines, bulge through the opening of muscles near the navel.
If the tissue becomes trapped, it can get strangulated, and this is a surgical emergency. Coughing, weightlifting and anything that increases abdominal pressure can cause this to happen.
Keeping your belly button clean is the best way to prevent infection, although it’s no guarantee. Showering more often and keeping skin dry can also prevent conditions like intertrigo that can lead to infection. Wearing loose clothing helps too.
Another excellent option is a pyrithione zinc containing cleanser such as my Foaming Zinc Cleanser. The pyrithione zinc medication has broad anti-microbial effect to reduce the growth of many skin germs that can proliferate in the belly button to cause infection. Foaming Zinc is my 'go to' cleanser for scalp seborrheic dermatitis.
Use a fine washcloth to cleanse your navel. Gently massage the cleanser onto wet, navel skin. Rinse well and dry with a towel. If your navel has a lot of folds, you may need to dry with a blow drier on a cool to warm setting to get skin totally dry.
How to treat a belly button infection
For yeast infections like candidiasis keep the area clean and dry. Use a fine washcloth to gently help exfoliate dead skin. This will help to stop yeast thriving. You can use antifungal creams and powders, but don’t use cornstarch because it’s a carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is food for skin microbes.
A bacterial infection like cellulitis may require a course of antibiotics. An infected sebaceous cyst may also need antibiotics. A sebaceous cyst might have to be drained and surgically removed once the infection has cleared.
How to treat a belly button infection depends on the cause. Any swelling, growth, tenderness or discharge from the belly button should be evaluated by your doctor as it could indicate a serious health issue.
Sign up for Dr. Bailey's FREE Newsletter to get more of her practical skin health information and articles - written for you by a dermatologist who has done over 200,000 skin exams over her 35-year career.
Cohen, DC, A Man with an Umbilical Ulcer, Medscape J Med., 2008; 10(1): 11
Gallagher, PG, Omphalitis, Medscape, Dec 26, 2017 https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/975422-overview
Sarma DP, Teruya B, ‘Lint ball’ omphalitis, a rare cause of umbilical discharge in an adult woman; a case report. Cases J, 2009; 2: 7785 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2740229/
Yadav G, Mohan R, Clinical Profile of Umbilical Discharge in Adults; A Multicentric Study in North India, The Internet Journal of Surgery, 2010 Volume 27 Number 1 http://ispub.com/IJS/27/1/6283