Has breastfeeding suddenly become exceptionally painful? Are you beginning to suspect it’s the result of a serious condition?
You may be right — it’s possible you have a breast infection, also known as mastitis.
Mastitis — pronounced mass-TIE-tiss — refers to the inflammation and infection of your breast tissue. It’s common among breastfeeding women, though many are unaware of what causes it or how to treat it.
What Causes Mastitis?
While mastitis can happen at any time in a woman’s life, it’s most common if she is breastfeeding. Why? The key to unlocking this question lies in women’s milk ducts.
Your milk ducts are a system of tubes inside your breasts. They carry breast milk to your nipples so your baby can feed.
Sometimes, your milk ducts can become obstructed, blocking the milk from flowing properly. When this happens, your breast tissue becomes inflamed, swelling and turning hard. When you touch your breast, it may even feel like a lump has formed.
The obstruction can form for a number of reasons (1):
- Not-quite-empty breasts: Sometimes obstructions happen when your breast is not emptied of milk properly. This may be because your baby has difficulty latching, or because you may not be feeding or pumping consistently enough.
- Bacterial infections: If your nipple becomes cut, bacteria can be introduced to your system causing an infection.
- Allergies: Inflammation as a result of allergies can also cause milk duct obstructions.
- Tight clothing: Tight and restrictive clothing will increase pressure on the breast and slow milk flow. Ill-fitting bras and synthetic materials may also be part of the problem.
Plugged Duct or Mastitis?
Mastitis is sometimes referred to as a clogged or plugged duct. However, while they are similar, a plugged duct is normally a precursor to mastitis and isn’t technically infected. It can appear as a red lump on either side of the breast.
With a plugged duct, one specific spot on the breast may be red and tender, especially while breastfeeding. Luckily, a plugged duct can be treated with many of the same methods as mastitis — and, if treated quickly enough, will never become mastitis at all.
What Are The Symptoms of Mastitis?
If a plugged duct has progressed to mastitis, the symptoms will be fairly pronounced and will come on quickly.
Be on the lookout for (2):
- Lumps: The swollen breast tissue will become hard, causing a small lump to form. Generally, the lump will feel tender and hot to the touch.
- Redness: You may see visible redness on the affected breast.
- Heat: A painful sensation of heat may be felt throughout the breast and on the skin of your breast.
- Fever: One of the hallmark symptoms of mastitis, rather than just a plugged duct, is fever and flu-like symptoms. Fevers are generally 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
Mothers may find their symptoms are worse before breastfeeding and relieved somewhat afterward.
Doctors can diagnose mastitis fairly easily with a physical examination and review of your symptoms. If you think you may have mastitis or a plugged duct, make an appointment with your physician.
How Is Mastitis Treated?
The two main treatments for mastitis focus on eliminating the infection and unclogging your milk ducts. Your doctor will prescribe you an antibiotic and advise you on your breastfeeding or pumping routine to ensure you are emptying your breasts properly.
Unless otherwise detailed by your doctor, this antibiotic will likely not interfere with your ability to breastfeed your baby.
Treating Mastitis At Home
While treatments from the doctor will ultimately heal your mastitis, there are also a number of things you can do to improve and soothe your condition at home.
1. Drink water
Mastitis creates flu-like symptoms, such as fever, aches, and chills. With any infection, drinking enough fluids to keep your body fighting is key.
Drinking water is essential, but you can also add in other drinks depending on your needs. This can include coconut water, some sports drinks, broth, or waters enriched with electrolytes to replace what’s been lost from dehydration.
2. Take a shower
The warm water of a shower can help soften and relax your muscles. Your affected breast will likely be tight and sore. With a shower, not only will you feel better, but your milk flow can be improved.
Depending on how sore your breasts are, let the water stream from the showerhead and flow directly onto your chest. If that hurts too much, letting the water hit your back at the level of your breasts may help.
3. Try a warm compress
If you aren’t able to take a shower, you may still find some heat therapy helps. You can try this by putting a warm compress on your breast.
You can even make your own do-it-yourself compress by filling a clean sock with rice, knotting it closed, and placing it in the microwave until it reaches the desired temperature.
4. Try breast massage
A gentle breast massage can stimulate milk flow, draining away the clogged milk causing you so much pain.
You can do this massage by yourself or with an intimate partner. Experts suggest starting the massage on the outside of your breast, working your way towards the nipple.
If it does not cause you intense pain, a gentle massage on the lump or milk duct itself can also be beneficial.
5. Nurse frequently
Ensuring your breasts are emptied properly of breast milk is the best way to treat mastitis and keep it from recurring. Frequently nurse and work with a lactation consultant if needed to be sure your baby is latching and transferring milk well.
Varying nursing your positions — in a dangling feeding position, for instance — and nursing as much as possible with the affected breast are all useful in treating mastitis.
If you’re unable to nurse, invest in a good breast pump and be diligent in finding a pumping schedule and technique that works for you.
How Long Does Mastitis Last?
After you begin antibiotics, you should start seeing improvement within two days. That being said, every case is different. Depending on the severity of your infection, it may take a few weeks to be completely healed.
It’s essential you finish your round of antibiotics, even if you feel great after a few days. If you don’t, the infection may come back stronger than before.
Can I Breastfeed With Mastitis?
You may be confused — if your breast is experiencing so much pain, how can you nurse? Isn’t your breast milk affected if you have an infection?
These are good questions to ask — you always want to be aware of how changes in your body may negatively impact your little one. However, breastfeeding while you have mastitis is completely safe.
As previously stated, continuing to nurse or pump is essential for treating mastitis.
Breast Milk Note
Pumping Breast Milk With Mastitis
In severe cases of mastitis, nursing your baby may be too excruciating. How can you express your breast milk without pain?
Follow these three steps to pump your breast milk while you are dealing with mastitis:
- Take some relief: Take over-the-counter pain relievers before pumping. Standard doses of ibuprofen and acetaminophen are both considered safe for moms and babies while breastfeeding (3).
- Pump up your pump: Use a stronger breast pump. Most companies will label their most powerful breast pumps as hospital-grade. These breast pumps will help ensure your breast milk is being emptied as fully as possible. You can rent a pump from a hospital or buy one online. These are usually much more expensive than regular breast pumps, so we recommend only purchasing one if you constantly struggle with mastitis or troubled breastfeeding.
- Try hand expressing: If pumping with a machine is painful as well, consider hand expressing your breast milk. While this may take longer than pumping, you can be gentle with your hands and only press on areas that aren’t swollen.
What About A Long-Lasting Lump?
For women, a lump in the breast automatically brings up feelings of anxiety and fear. You can take a deep breath in knowing mastitis does not increase your risk for breast cancer (4).
However, if you have been treated for mastitis and the lump does not go away, visit your doctor for a breast examination. This is especially true if all other symptoms subside and there is no pain. Breast cancer lumps are generally painless (5).
Improving Milk Flow and Expression
As we’ve gone over, ensuring your breast milk is moving properly is essential to preventing and treating mastitis. Every mother is different, but there are common breastfeeding issues that keep the milk from flowing.
1. Baby has trouble latching
Latching is defined as the act of your baby attaching to your breast to breastfeed. When your baby has a proper latch, the entire nipple and good portion of your areola is covered by your baby’s mouth, with those cute little lips out turned against your skin (6).
If your baby is struggling to latch on properly, many issues can arise.
You may experience pain and discomfort while your baby is cranky due to hunger. If not enough milk is expressed, your breasts can become engorged and swollen, leading to plugged ducts and mastitis.
To best way to improve your baby’s latch is to reach out to a lactation consultant. You can find them in a simple online search. A lactation consultant can help determine the specific problems you and your baby are having and find a solution that works for you and your baby.
At home, do everything you can to make breastfeeding a comfortable experience. Make sure you’ve eaten and gone to the bathroom. Change your baby’s diaper and make sure you and baby both feel well supported wherever you’re sitting or lying down.
2. No time to pump
Some mothers are unable to breastfeed and must pump their breast milk due to medical reasons. Others work outside the home and are not able to feed baby directly.
There are a couple of things you can do to make sure you don’t experience breast engorgement:
- Do double duty: Try to pump one breast while you nurse on the other. Use the football hold while nursing to ensure you have enough room for both your baby and the pump.
- Try a pumping bra: These specially-designed bras will allow you to pump hands-free, leaving you with more ability to get things done.
- Start a schedule: Make sure you accommodate your own breastfeeding needs. Create a schedule at work or at home that leaves times for pumping.
3. Producing too much milk
Milk production is one of the most consistent concerns new mothers have. Are they making enough? Or too much? Oversupply occurs when your body makes more milk than your baby can consume.
You can do a couple of things to handle an oversupply of milk. The first thing is to visit with a lactation consultant to make sure your baby’s latch or feeding schedule isn’t tricking your body into creating more milk than necessary.
Then, do your best not to pump too much. If your body is consistently told to make more breast milk by over-pumping, it will likely trigger the over-production of milk.
Have You Had Mastitis?
Mastitis is a painful condition, but can be easily treated once you recognize the symptoms. Pay attention to how your breasts feel, and be vigilant about tenderness or flu-like symptoms.
Talk to your doctor if you have concerns or feel you need treatment. Try over-the-counter relief, a hot shower, and ensure you stay hydrated.