Mastitis is the inflammation of a breast that may be associated with an infection.
It is common in breastfeeding mothers, affecting about 10% of them.


However, non-breastfeeding women and men may also develop mastitis.

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What Is Mastitis?

Mastitis is a common medical problem among nursing mothers, although other people can also acquire it. It refers to the swelling and reddening of a breast, typically caused by an infection. When it’s diagnosed in breastfeeding mothers, mastitis may be called “puerperal mastitis” or “lactation mastitis.” If a non-breastfeeding patient develops this infection, it’s referred to as “periductal mastitis.”


The symptoms of mastitis can be alarming and painful. Fortunately, home care can usually bring about a rapid improvement of symptoms. If home care is not sufficient for breastfeeding mothers, or when non-nursing patients develop mastitis, a doctor can prescribe antibiotics to resolve the infection.



Signs and Symptoms of Mastitis

Mastitis is a medical condition that typically has a rapid onset of symptoms. The breast may suddenly feel warm or tender to the touch, and it will take on a swollen, reddened appearance. You may also feel a lump or area of thickening. The breast may feel painful continuously or only while breastfeeding. A burning sensation is also common.


In addition, patients may report a general feeling of malaise, or feeling ill. You might feel “run down” or achy. Mastitis can result in a fever, particularly if the inflammation is accompanied by an infection. A severe infection may lead to chills, nausea, and vomiting.



Causes and Risk Factors of Mastitis

The most common cause of mastitis is the improper or incomplete drainage of milk from the breast. This can happen if the milk ducts are clogged, which causes milk to accumulate and increases the risk of infection. The problem can be further compounded by bacteria that may be transferred from the baby’s mouth or the surface of the mother’s skin through a milk duct opening or a crack in the skin. Once the bacteria enter, they can easily begin replicating in the moist environment created by the stagnant milk.


In men and non-breastfeeding women, a breast infection can occur if something damages the breast tissue or nipple. Examples include piercings or skin disorders, such as eczema. It’s also possible to acquire an infection after shaving or plucking hairs in the area.


Certain factors may increase the risk of developing mastitis. These include the following:


  • Having a weak immune system from an underlying medical condition, such as diabetes

  • Having a personal history of mastitis

  • Having sore or cracked nipples

  • Smoking

  • Using improper nursing techniques

  • Being malnourished


In addition, breastfeeding women may be at a higher risk of mastitis if they wear very tight bras or otherwise place pressure on the breast. Excessive pressure can prevent the proper flow of milk.



Diagnosis of Mastitis

A doctor usually won’t require tests to diagnose mastitis. Instead, the doctor will ask you about your symptoms and do a visual examination. If you’re breastfeeding and have a severe infection, the doctor may want to test a drop of your breast milk to determine the most appropriate type of antibiotic to prescribe.


If you are not breastfeeding, or if antibiotics have failed to clear up your symptoms, your doctor may recommend a mammogram or ultrasound. This is because inflammatory breast cancer can mimic the signs of mastitis. While this form of cancer is rare, it’s quite aggressive and deadly, and it requires swift treatment. An imaging scan can help determine whether your symptoms are attributable to mastitis or to breast cancer.



Treatment and Care for Patients with Mastitis

If your doctor recommends home care, you should plan to get plenty of rest and stay well-hydrated. Mastitis can be painful. Ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to take an over-the-counter pain reliever while breastfeeding.


For breastfeeding patients, it’s very important to fully empty each breast, as mastitis can be caused by the accumulation of breast milk. Be sure to feed your baby from both breasts. You can pump or hand express the affected breast after each feeding to ensure that your baby has fully drained the milk. If your baby habitually fails to drain the affected breast, you may find that applying a heating pad prior to each feeding will help the breast drain completely. In addition, when your baby pauses between sucks, use a hand to massage and compress the breast.


Note that it’s perfectly safe to continue breastfeeding despite the breast infection. In fact, doing so will protect your baby more effectively from infections since he or she will get the antibodies your own body is producing.


Patients who are not breastfeeding, as well as breastfeeding patients whose symptoms persist or are severe may be prescribed an antibiotic to clear up the infection. Usually, antibiotics for mastitis are prescribed in 10-day courses. Remember to take all of your prescribed antibiotics unless otherwise directed by your doctor. If you stop taking the medicine, the infection can return, even if you were starting to feel better.



When to Talk to a Doctor About Mastitis

If you develop possible symptoms of mastitis and you are either a man or a woman who is not breastfeeding, then it’s best to consult a healthcare provider promptly. You may require a prescription to successfully resolve the condition. If you are a breastfeeding mother, you may wish to talk to a healthcare provider right away if you’ve never had mastitis before and wish to confirm the diagnosis. However, you will likely be advised to try home care first. If you’ve already tried home care for about 24 hours and your symptoms persist, then speak to a physician about your treatment options.


Sometimes, mastitis can become severe. You should consult a healthcare provider immediately if you experience any of the following signs:


  • Persistent or very high fever

  • Worsening of the swelling, reddening, and warmth of the breast

  • Presence of pus or blood in breast milk

  • Red streaks emanating from the areola toward the underarm

  • Possible infection of a cracked nipple

  • Persistent chills and malaise


In addition, you should speak to a doctor if you have any concerns or questions about mastitis or its treatment.

This page offers general health information to facilitate discussion with your telehealth provider. You must not rely on the information on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.

If this is a medical emergency, please call 911. For mental health emergencies, call 988.

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