Mastitis occurs when bacteria found on skin or saliva enter breast tissue through a milk duct or crack in the skin. Milk ducts are a part of the anatomy of the breast that carry milk to the nipples. All genders have milk ducts and can get mastitis.
Infection also happens when milk backs up due to a blocked milk duct or problematic breastfeeding technique. Bacteria grow in the stagnant milk. These factors increase the risk of a nursing mom developing mastitis:
- Cracked, sore nipples.
- Improper latching technique or using only one position to breastfeed.
- Wearing tight-fitting bras that restrict milk flow.
- Applying herbs to the breast to facilitate breast milk production.
What are the symptoms of mastitis?
Many people with mastitis develop a wedge-shaped red mark on one breast. (Rarely, mastitis affects both breasts.) The breast may be swollen and feel hot or tender to touch. You may also experience:
- Breast lumps.
- Breast pain (mastalgia) or burning sensation that worsens when your baby nurses.
- Flu-like symptoms, including fever and chills.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Nipple discharge.
How is mastitis diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will do a physical exam and check your symptoms to make a diagnosis. If you aren’t breastfeeding, you may get a mammogram or other tests to rule out breast cancer or a different breast condition.
How is mastitis managed or treated?
Your healthcare provider may prescribe an oral antibiotic to treat mastitis. The infection should clear up within 10 days but may last as long as three weeks. Mastitis sometimes goes away without medical treatment.
To reduce pain and inflammation, you can:
- Apply warm, moist compresses to the affected breast every few hours or take a warm shower.
- Breastfeed every two hours or more often to keep milk flowing through the milk ducts. If needed, use a breast pump to express milk between feedings.
- Drink plenty of fluids and rest when possible.
- Massage the area using a gentle circular motion starting at the outside of the affected area and working in toward the nipple.
- Take over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).
- Wear a supportive bra that doesn’t compress the breast.
What are the complications of mastitis?
If left untreated, a breast infection like mastitis can lead to a breast abscess. This type of abscess typically needs to be surgically drained. If you have an abscess that needs to be drained, your healthcare provider will perform minor surgery or use a small needle to drain the pus. Often, you may need to be admitted to the hospital for IV antibiotics. A breast abscess will not go away with warm compresses.
Breastfeeding moms can take these steps to lower their chances of getting mastitis:
- Air out your nipples after nursing.
- Don’t wear nursing pads or tight-fitting bras that keep nipples moist.
- Nurse your baby on one side, allowing the breast to empty, before switching to the other breast.
- Switch up breastfeeding positions to fully empty all areas of the breast.
- Use your finger to break your baby’s suction on a nipple if you need to stop a feeding.
When should I call the doctor?
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
- Breast pain.
- Changes in the way your breasts look or feel.
- Newly discovered lump.
- Nipple discharge.
- Worsening of mastitis symptoms after 24 hours of antibiotics or at-home treatment.