The breast is made up of tissue and fat that surround glands and ducts that lead to the areola and the nipple. The ducts that carry milk start at the nipple and extend into the underlying breast tissue, similar to the spokes of a wheel. The lactiferous ducts are under the areola and they fill with milk during lactation after a woman gives birth. When a girl reaches puberty, hormonal changes cause the ducts to grow and fat deposits in the breast tissue to increase. Sometimes a female's breast tissues get infected. How does this happen and what can you do to deal with this problem?
What Is Breast Infection?
Mastitis is an infection of the breast tissue and are most commonly seen among breastfeeding women. When breastfeeding, the nipples can become dry, cracked, and sore which allows bacteria from the baby’s mouth to enter the breast. Breast infection rarely occurs in women who aren’t breastfeeding. Mastitis affects the fatty tissue of the breast and can cause lumps, pain, and swelling. In very rare instances, breast infection can be associated with cancer.
What Causes Breast Infection?
There are two main causes of breast infection. Infection is most common in the first month after giving birth. These causes are:
- Bacteria that enters the breast. During breastfeeding, the nipple can become cracked and sore, opening up the skin. Bacteria on the surface of the skin or from the baby’s mouth can then enter the breast, causing infection. This cannot harm the baby, though.
- Blocked milk ducts. A duct can become clogged if the milk isn’t completely emptied during breastfeeding. The milk then backs up, leading to an infection. When the ducts are blocked, mastitis can occur without infection, leading to swelling and pain.
What Are the Symptoms of Breast Infection?
There are a number of symptoms of breast infection, or mastitis. These symptoms include:
- Swelling and tenderness of the breast
- Engorgement of the breast
- Body aches
- Chills and fever
- Abscess—this can lead to complications of mastitis as noncancerous abscesses can create even more tenderness and pain and feel as though it is moving under the skin. Indications of an abscess include a sore lump that doesn’t go away, pus from the nipple, and a fever that doesn’t go away within a few days.
When to See a Doctor
You should seek medical attention if you:
- Experience pain in the breast that makes it difficult to function
- Have an abnormal discharge from the nipple
- Have unexplained and prolonged pain in the breast
- Experience swelling, pain, or redness that interferes with breastfeeding
- Have a lump or mass that does not go away
- Experience any symptoms of infection while breastfeeding
Emergency treatment may be required if you experience:
- Pus draining from the nipple
- Nausea or vomiting
- Persistent fever over 101.5 degrees
- Fainting, dizziness, or confusion
- Streaks of red that extend along the breast to your chest or arm
How to Diagnose Breast Infection
A breast infection is diagnosed by your doctor with a physical exam and any symptoms you may be experiencing. In some cases there is an area of the breast shaped like a wedge and pointing to the nipple that is tender. Your doctor will also make sure you do not have an abscess. Your doctor may recommend a mammogram to rule out inflammatory breast cancer, which is a very rare form of breast cancer, because some symptoms can be similar to mastitis. If there is a lump or mass, your doctor may recommend a biopsy to rule out cancer.
How Is Breast Infection Treated?
Breast infection must be treated by a doctor, but there are a number of things you can do at home to ease any discomfort and help heal the infection faster. Medications prescribed to treat breast infection are generally antibiotics, including Cephalexin (Keflex) and dicloxacillin (Dycill), but it will depend on your specific situation. IV antibiotics may be required if the infection does not respond to regular antibiotics, if it worsens, or if you have an abscess that requires surgery. At home, to ease discomfort and treat your infection, you can:
- Take over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen as they are safe while breastfeeding.
- Continue to breastfeed even though it may cause pain. Emptying the breast can help with engorgement and clogged ducts.
- Use a breast pump to empty the breast and ease pressure.
- Breastfeed from unaffected breast and supplement with formula if necessary.
- Apply a warm compress to affected breast to ease pain and discomfort.
- Use ice packs if heat in ineffective, but avoid using just before feeding as ice can slow down the flow of milk.
- Drink at least ten glasses of water per day and eat a healthy diet as poor nutrition and dehydration can lead to decreased milk supply, making you feel worse.
- Follow-up with your doctor about two weeks after your diagnosis and be sure to take all of the medications prescribed.
FAQs on Breast Infection
How Long Will Mastitis Last?
An infection that is diagnosed early, is usually quick to treat. Improvement should begin within 48 hours of starting antibiotics, and it won't be long before you start feeling much better. Take all of the prescribed medications to keep any infection from returning days or weeks later.
If your breast remains sore or tender and you still have a fever after a couple of days, call your healthcare provider right away. Ignoring mastitis can cause serious complications including breast abscesses, which will require antibiotics and sometimes surgery under general anesthesia to drain the abscess.
How Can I Avoid Breast Infection?
To avoid getting a breast infection or mastitis, you should drink plenty of water, eat a healthy diet, and get plenty of rest. Stress and fatigue can make you more susceptible to infection. You should also avoid allowing your breasts to become too full by using a pump if they aren’t completely empty after feeding. If you have clogged ducts use a warm compress and massage to loosen the clot and get the milk out. Also avoid wearing bras that are too small or bras with an underwire.
Do I Need to Stop Breastfeeding If I Have Mastitis?
It is very important that you continue to breastfeed during an infection in order to keep the milk flowing and emptying out your breasts. This will help avoid further blockages. Continue to use warm compresses before each feeding. You can use a breast pump to fully empty your breasts if necessary.
Will Mastitis Harm My Baby?
Your baby will not be harmed by a breast infection, though be aware that it can reduce milk production and you may need to supplement with formula. Continuing to breastfeed will help with your breast infection by keeping the milk flowing to ease engorgement and to help prevent clogged ducts.