A Guide to Belly Button Discharge

Medically Reviewed By Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI
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Your belly button, or navel, is a remnant of your umbilical cord and usually contains a buildup of dead skin cells, microorganisms, dirt, and lint. Infections, abdominal surgery, and various cysts may cause a navel discharge.  This article will discuss the various causes of belly button discharge, treatment, and prevention. 

What causes belly button discharge? 

Close up of a person's belly button
Aliaksandra Ivanova/EyeEm/Getty Images

Discharge is due to several causes. The most common cause is infection from bacteria or fungus. You may be more likely to experience infection if you recently had abdominal surgery. Certain cysts may also cause belly button discharge. 

Bacterial infection

Your belly button is a perfect location for bacteria to grow and potentially spread. In fact, a study from 2012 discovered an average of 67 different types of belly button bacteria.

Most of these bacteria work to keep our skin healthy. But if there’s an overgrowth of bacteria that cause an infection, such as Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus A, you may notice:

  • smelly, yellowish-green discharge
  • swelling
  • redness or discoloration
  • pain

If the infection spreads deeper in your skin, it may develop into cellulitis. If you notice any of the following, contact a doctor or seek medical care right away:

  • a large, red rash that is warm to the touch
  • fever or chills
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • red or discolored streaks leading away from the belly button area

Left untreated, cellulitis can lead to a blood infection called bacteremia, which can further develop into sepsis. Without prompt treatment, sepsis can cause your organs to shut down, becoming a life threatening medical emergency. 

A belly button piercing may make you more at risk for bacterial infection. If you have a belly button piercing, it is important to clean your jewelry and piercing daily. After you wash, make sure to completely dry the area.

If you notice any of the following, you may have an infection and may want to visit your doctor for treatment: 

  • redness or discoloration
  • pain
  • skin that is hot to the touch
  • crusting
  • discharge

Learn more about bacterial infections.

Yeast infection

Sometimes yeast, known as Candida, can also overgrow in your belly button. This causes a yeast infection called candidiasis. Yeast thrives in moist, warm skin crevices, so the belly button is a potential host.

Most of the time, yeast lives on your skin with no side effects. Under certain circumstances, it can quickly overgrow. Some conditions that may lead to a yeast infection include:

  • hot, humid weather
  • tight clothing
  • poor hygiene
  • weakened immune system due to medication or underlying health conditions
  • pregnancy
  • obesity 
  • antibiotics 

If you are taking antibiotics, they might destroy the good bacteria on your skin, allowing yeast to grow quickly. 

Symptoms of a fungal infection may include:

  • bright red rash
  • scaly skin 
  • itching  
  • burning 
  • thick, white discharge 

You may also have small pustules at the edges of the rash. Sometimes Candida can invade deeper tissues. This may cause systemic candidiasis, a life threatening infection. Yet this usually occurs only in those with a weakened immune system

Learn more about candidiasis.

Surgery

Abdominal surgeries may pose a risk for potential infection near or in the belly button. These surgeries include umbilical hernia repair or laparoscopic surgery that involves incisions near the belly button.

If you had recent abdominal surgery and notice liquid or pus draining from your belly button, it may be a sign of an internal infection. Contact your doctor right away to receive prompt treatment.

Urachal cyst

These cysts sometimes develop when part of the urachus, or tube that connects the umbilical cord to the bladder in a developing baby, creates a pocket of tissue, according to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center.

The tube typically disappears before birth, but it may remain in some people. Those most likely to be affected include older children and adults.

If you notice a cloudy or bloody discharge from your belly button along with any of the following, you may have a urachal cyst:

Epidermoid cyst

Epidermoid cysts are nodules that grow under the skin and range in size from 0.5 centimeters (cm) to several cm, according to 2022 research.

These are common They often develop when a blocked hair follicle traps keratin — a protein in your skin, hair, and nails — below the skin.

Epidermoid cysts may occur spontaneously. Recently it has been implied that ultraviolet (UV) light and infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) may also cause their formation, the same 2022 research notes. 

These cysts are usually benign, or noncancerous. It is rare that they become malignant, or cancerous, according to 2019 research.

Adult males between 30 and 40 years old are most often affected by epidermoid cysts. These cysts usually appear on the face, neck, and trunk of the body. They can also occur in the umbilical area after abdominal surgery, such as umbilical hernia surgery.  

When these cysts rupture, they emit a thick, yellowish, foul-smelling substance and lead to inflammation that may cause an infection. Experts recommend surgery for complete removal of the cyst, but complications may include bleeding, infection, and scarring. 

Learn more about epidermoid cysts.

Umbilical endometriosis

A somewhat rare cause of navel discharge is umbilical endometriosis, according to a small 2020 study. Endometriosis is when your endometrial tissue grows outside your uterus.

Sometimes a nodule is found in the belly button with symptoms of:

  • bleeding
  • discharge
  • swelling
  • cyclical pain

These may occur spontaneously or after laparoscopic surgery. Treatment is typically the surgical removal of the nodule. 

When to see a doctor for belly button discharge

Seek medical attention if you have any of these belly button symptoms:

  • tenderness
  • redness or discoloration
  • red or discolored rash
  • pain
  • fever or chills
  • itching
  • burning
  • foul smell
  • discharge that is yellow, green, white, or bloody
  • a lump 
  • swelling

What are treatments for belly button discharge?

Your treatment will depend on your symptoms.

If your doctor determines your discharge is from a bacterial infection, they will likely prescribe an antibiotic cream or an oral antibiotic. This may vary depending on the type of bacteria that is causing your infection and its severity. If the infection is severe, you will likely require oral antibiotics until the infection goes away.

If you have a fungal infection, your doctor will likely prescribe an antifungal cream or an oral antifungal medication. Again, this depends on the severity of your infection. Some of these topical medications may include: 

  • clotrimazole
  • ketoconazole
  • ciclopirox

If you have a cyst that is causing your discharge, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics first to clear any infection. Once your infection is resolved, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the cyst.  

How can you prevent belly button discharge? 

Keeping your belly button clean by washing daily is a good way to help avoid potential infections.

When showering, use a washcloth and fragrance-free soap or a dilution of warm salt water, and massage the inside of your navel. Make sure to completely dry the area because moisture will encourage bacteria and fungus to grow. Avoid applying any lotion or oil to your belly button for the same reason.

It is also important to keep your piercings and jewelry clean. Use a saltwater solution and apply it as a compress several times a day. Dry the area when you are finished. 

Speak with your doctor about how to boost your immunity via lifestyle changes or other means if you may be more likely to experience bacterial or fungal infections due to:

  • underlying health conditions, such as diabetes or HIV
  • pregnancy
  • obesity
  • medication that suppresses your immune response

Summary 

If you notice any type of discharge from your belly button, seek prompt medical attention.

Your doctor will diagnose the cause and provide the appropriate treatment. Delaying treatment may allow an infection to spread, leading to complications and, potentially, a medical emergency.

Practicing proper hygiene and regular cleaning of your piercings and jewelry may help prevent infections. 

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Medical Reviewer: Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Cellulitis. (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-hcp/cellulitis.html
  3. Hoang, V. T., et al. (2019). Overview of epidermoid cyst. https://www.ejropen.com/article/S2352-0477(19)30040-1/fulltext
  4. Hulcr, J., et al. (2012). A jungle in there: Bacteria in belly buttons are highly diverse, but predictable.  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0047712
  5. Makenna, D., et al. (2020). Umbilical endometriosis: A case series. https://jmedicalcasereports.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13256-020-02492-9
  6. Urachal cyst. (2021). https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/5425/urachal-cyst
  7. What is sepsis? (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/sepsis/what-is-sepsis.html
  8. Zito, P., et al. (2022). Epidermoid cyst. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499974/