Mastitis is an infection of the breast tissue that causes pain, swelling and redness of the breast. Mastitis most commonly affects women who are breast-feeding, although in rare circumstances this condition can occur outside of lactation.
Often, mastitis occurs within the first six weeks after birth (postpartum), but it can happen later during breast-feeding. The condition can leave you feeling exhausted and rundown, making it difficult to care for your baby.
Sometimes mastitis leads a mother mistakenly to wean her baby before she intends to. But you can continue breast-feeding while you have mastitis.
With mastitis, signs and symptoms can appear suddenly and may include:
- Breast tenderness or warmth to the touch
- General malaise or feeling ill
- Swelling of the breast
- Pain or a burning sensation continuously or while breast-feeding
- Skin redness, often in a wedge-shaped pattern
- Fever of 101 F (38.3 C) or greater
Although mastitis usually occurs in the first several weeks of nursing, it can happen any time during breast-feeding. Mastitis tends to affect only one breast — not both breasts.
Mastitis occurs when bacteria enter your breast through a break or crack in the skin of your nipple or through the opening to the milk ducts in your nipple. Bacteria from your skin’s surface and baby’s mouth enter the milk duct and can multiply — leading to pain, redness and swelling of the breast as infection progresses.
Things that put you at increased risk of mastitis include:
- Sore or cracked nipples, although mastitis can develop without broken skin.
- A previous bout of mastitis while breast-feeding — if you’ve experienced mastitis in the past, you’re more likely to experience it again.
- Using only one position to breast-feed, which may not fully drain your breast.
- Wearing a tightfitting bra, which may restrict milk flow.
Your doctor diagnoses mastitis based on a physical examination, taking into account signs and symptoms of fever, chills and a painful area in the breast. Another clear sign is a wedge-shaped area on the breast that points toward the nipple and is tender to the touch. As part of the examination, your doctor will make sure you don’t have a breast abscess — a complication that can occur when mastitis isn’t treated promptly.
Mastitis treatment usually involves:
- Antibiotics. Treating mastitis usually requires a 10- to 14-day course of antibiotics. You may feel well again 24 to 48 hours after starting antibiotics, but it’s important to take the entire course of medication to minimize your chance of recurrence.
- Self-care remedies. Resting, continuing breast-feeding and drinking extra fluids can help your body overcome the breast infection.
If your mastitis doesn’t clear up after taking antibiotics, check back with your doctor. A rare form of breast cancer — inflammatory breast cancer — can also cause redness and swelling that could initially be confused with mastitis. You may need a biopsy to make sure you don’t have breast cancer.
Complications that may arise from mastitis include:
- Recurrence. Once you’ve had mastitis, you’re more likely to get it again, either breast-feeding the same infant or a future child. Delayed or inadequate treatment is usually to blame for mastitis recurrence.
- Milk stasis. When the milk isn’t completely drained from your breast during breast-feeding, milk stasis can occur. This causes increased pressure on the ducts and leakage of milk into surrounding breast tissue, which can lead to pain and inflammation.
- Abscess. When mastitis is inadequately treated, or if it’s related to milk stasis, a collection of pus (abscess) can develop in your breast. An abscess usually requires surgical draining. To avoid this complication, talk to your doctor as soon as you develop signs or symptoms of mastitis.
Minimize your chances of getting mastitis by fully draining the milk from your breasts while breast-feeding. Allow your baby to completely empty one breast before switching to the other breast during feeding. If your baby nurses only for a few minutes on the second breast — or not at all — start breast-feeding on that breast the next time you feed your baby.
Alternate the breast you offer first at each breast-feeding, and change the position you use to breast-feed from one feeding to the next. Make sure your baby latches on properly during feedings. Finally, don’t let your baby use your breast as a pacifier. Babies enjoy sucking and often find comfort in suckling at the breast even when they’re not hungry.
If you have mastitis, it’s safe to continue breast-feeding. Breast-feeding helps your breast clear the infection.
To relieve your discomfort:
- Maintain your breast-feeding routine.
- Avoid prolonged engorgement before breast-feeding.
- Use varied positions to breast-feed.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- If you have trouble emptying a portion of your breast, apply warm compresses to the breast or take a warm shower before breast-feeding or pumping milk.
- Wear a supportive bra.
- While waiting for the antibiotics to take effect, take a mild pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others).
If breast-feeding on the infected breast is too painful, try pumping or hand-expressing milk.