If you're going to get your navel pierced, it's smart to shop around -- and definitely not for price, says Myrna Armstrong, a professor of nursing at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, who has written about piercing since 1995. Visit the salon first and check for sanitation, sterilization and professionalism.

"Navels are popular [for piercing] because it can be covered," she says. "The bad news is they can get infected because of the location. "Waistbands rub on it, moisture collects there and there's friction from body movements." But if you're "extremely conscientious about skin care when you leave the studio, and you purchase very good jewelry with good metal content, the risk is low," she says.

Keep in mind it takes about a year for the incision to become permanent. Stainless steel jewelry is recommended by piercers for first-time insertions; gold and silver can come after the hole has stabilized. Nickel isn't recommended, since many people have allergies to that metal.

Sometimes infections go untreated because they don't cause pain initially. The main warning sign is oozing. "It can range from a clear to a white to a green, pus-looking drainage," Armstrong says. "It could be red around the area, irritated, itching." The bottom line on home care is "a good soap-and-water routine," she says. "That should be sufficient. But don't wait until it's infected to start the hygiene."

If you use an antiseptic ointment, Armstrong says, use a very thin layer "because air is very effective on this type of thing." Never use alcohol, because it dries the skin, she warns. And she says treatments such as tea tree oil, lavender oil, Preparation H (to reduce swelling) and the like are commonly recommended, but soap and water work best.

Armstrong has never heard of a piercing-related death, but there's always a potential for hepatitis, she says.

For more information, the Web site of the Association of Professional Piercers spells out dos and don'ts at www.safepiercing.org.

-- Buzz McClain