Your belly button might have served as your mouth in the womb, but it doesn’t do much for you now. It’s a storage facility for lint, dead skin, sweat and (if you’re cool) maybe even a piercing. It’s also home to 70 different strains of bacteria. Whether you’re pierced or not, if you don’t clean it out with soap and hot water, you risk developing a nasty infection. My boyfriend, Zane, found that out the hard way. As a three-mile-a-day runner with a hairy bod and a penchant for cold showers, he discovered his navel cavity had become the perfect home for a bacterial jamboree. This is his story. —Magdalene Taylor
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I almost never get sick, I run every day and I drink a lot of green juice. I’d never seen a doctor for anything weird, with the exception of some vague long-term teenage testicular pain that turned out to be nothing. So I was surprised to find a dull pain in my abdomen that hit when I bent down to pick up something.
The pain seemed to be located in the upper part of my belly button, so naturally, I jammed my finger into it. It felt normal on the surface, but as I dug deeper, I could feel a tiny knob beneath the skin. The more I prodded, the more it hurt.
I should’ve called a doctor. Instead, I opted to freak myself out on WebMD.
I Googled “belly button pain,” and a hernia was the first result. I wasn’t even sure what a hernia was, but I fit the bill: I had no other symptoms besides the pain and that little bulge. I assumed the worst: My intestines were poking out of place. I figured that if I had a hernia, it must be the result of some poor choice on my part. I do everything right, I thought, but I eat way too many french fries. I really need to give up french fries.
I still didn’t call a doctor.
When my girlfriend came home from work, I told her the truth — that there was something fucked-up going on with my stomach — but I tried to downplay the pain. Honestly, it wasn’t excruciating, but it still hurt, like someone was firmly jabbing my insides with the eraser end of a pencil. She was nervous but suspicious. She definitely believes the trope that men are more sensitive to minor illnesses than women, but she also really didn’t want me to, like, die of appendicitis. She told me I should probably go to a doctor that night, but I didn’t think we were at that point yet. It was my night off, I didn’t want to spend it at urgent care, and ultimately, I didn’t want to find out that I’d need surgery to put my intestines back in place.
So I just groaned and clutched my stomach until she got fed up. “If it hurts so bad that you’re breathing like that, you at least need to call someone,” she said. I finally dialed the advice hotline associated with my health insurance. After 20 minutes of pacing around the house (it felt better to be standing), I got a nurse on the line who, after hearing my symptoms, told me it didn’t seem to be an emergency but that I should see a doctor. We scheduled an appointment over the phone.
The next day, I was stripped down to my boxer briefs on the exam table. The doctor poked and prodded at my belly button, much the same way I had before. She seemed at a loss. It was unlikely that I had an umbilical hernia, but possible, she said.
Then she asked about my lifestyle, and I mentioned I run three miles a day.
This wasn’t actually a hernia, she said. Instead, dirt, lint, sweat and bacteria were getting trapped in my navel during my runs, forming a disgusting germ cocktail. The result: a belly button infection.
Belly button infections are totally a thing. Some people even get yeast infections in them. Thanks to all the running, my belly button was sweatier and grimier than most, leaving me especially susceptible to infection.
Sure, I always showered after running and soaped up my whole body, but I never paid close attention to the belly button, and I preferred to use cold water. I’d say I scrubbed inside there about twice a week. Same with my ears.
The doctor’s suggestion was pretty simple: take super-hot showers, soak the belly button daily and soap up the interior more often. After a few days of this new routine, the pain subsided.
Honestly, I’m kinda lucky. Some belly button infections lead to discharge, scabs or fevers; some are even symptoms of diabetes.
Now that I know all this, I’m way more aware of my navel. I clean it out daily. Lint gets trapped in there weirdly fast, something I’d never noticed before — I guess because I’m getting hairier. What the hell?
Getting a belly button infection makes me sound kind of gross, but I promise that I’m not. I just sweat a lot and have a cavernous belly button. It could happen to anyone — I swear.