Mastitis is often called a breast infection. It is inflammation or swelling of the breast alone, or along with an infection. Mastitis is a common problem of breastfeeding, occurring in approximately 20% of lactating women. It is more likely to happen within the first six weeks after the birth of your baby, but it can appear at any time while you are breastfeeding.
Signs and Symptoms
- A swollen, tender, warm area on the breast
- Redness in the location of the swelling
- Flu-like symptoms
- Body aches
Mastitis can be caused by an infection or by breast milk that is not being removed from your breasts effectively. It can also occur from stress, fatigue and a poor nutritional status. If you have cracked nipples, the openings in your skin can provide a way for bacteria to enter your body and cause an infection. Engorgement and plugged ducts can also lead to mastitis.
Milk may not be drained well from the breast when:
- The baby is not latching on well.
- The baby is not nursing often enough.
- The baby is not nursing long enough at each feeding.
- You have an overabundant milk supply.
- You or your baby are sick.
- You are weaning too quickly.
Other problems that can lead to mastitis:
- A tight bra, an underwire bra, or a bra that does not fit properly
- Strenuous exercise, especially of the upper body
If you think you have mastitis, notify your doctor. The doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.Medication, rest, and regular removal of the milk from your breasts will help you to recover more quickly. With immediate treatment, you should begin to feel better within 48 hours.
The most effective way to treat mastitis is to keep the milk flowing through your breasts by breastfeeding very often. Nursing while you have mastitis is safe and will not harm your baby. If you cannot breastfeed, use a breast pump or hand express every few hours.
Things You Can Do:
- Continue to breastfeed or express your milk frequently. Breastfeeding is the best way to drain your breasts and relieve engorgement and plugged ducts.
- Evaluate the baby’s position and latch. If the baby latches on correctly, you will be less likely to develop sore, cracked nipples, and the baby will be able to more efficiently remove the milk from your breasts.
- Alternate your breastfeeding positions to help empty different areas of your breasts.
- Massage the swollen, tender area to help loosen any milk that may be clogged.
- Pump or hand express after nursing your baby to remove as much milk as you can.
- Get enough rest.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Apply heat or cold packs to the area to provide comfort and pain relief.
- Ask your doctor if you can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce swelling and minimize pain.
- If you are taking an antibiotic, make sure to take it for the prescribed amount of time to prevent the infection from coming back.
You can’t completely prevent mastitis, but there are steps you can take to decrease your risk for developing it.
Use good breastfeeding technique: When your baby is latched on to your breast correctly, he can remove your breast milk more efficiently and he is less likely to cause damage to your nipples.
Alternate feeding positions: Different nursing positions drain different areas of the breast and help prevent milk from getting clogged in certain areas.
Change breast pads often: If you wear breast pads for leaking, make sure you change them frequently to prevent the growth of bacteria. Wet breast pads can also break down the skin on your nipples, creating an entrance for infection.
Do not allow your breasts to become engorged: Nurse your baby, pump, or hand express your milk very often to prevent engorgement and plugged ducts, which can lead to mastitis.
Do not wear tight bras: Tight bras or anything that confines, restricts or puts pressure on your breasts can lead to a breast infection.
Wean your baby gradually: Abrupt weaning can cause your breasts to become engorged. Weaning your baby slowly will help your breasts to gradually decrease the amount of milk, therefore preventing engorgement, plugged ducts and mastitis.
Complications of Mastitis
If your symptoms do not resolve on their own within 24 hours, it is important to contact your doctor. A delay in treatment can lead to complications, such as:
The development of mastitis may cause some women to consider weaning. Nursing with mastitis is safe, and actually helps clear the infection. It is not necessary to stop breastfeeding if you develop mastitis.
An abscess is a tender, fluid-filled lump that can form in your breast as a result of mastitis. If you develop an abscess, your doctor may need to drain it with a needle or surgically remove it.
Thrush is a fungal or yeast infection. Yeast is naturally present on and in our bodies, but when it overgrows or moves to a place it shouldn’t be, it can become a problem. Thrush can cause a breast infection by entering the breast tissue through damaged nipples, and it can also occur as a result of mastitis.
The use of antibiotics to treat a breast infection can lead to an overgrowth of yeast. This can cause red, burning nipples and breast pain, or you may see white patches or redness in your baby’s mouth. Notify your doctor if you notice thrush on your nipples or in your baby’s mouth. Both you and your baby will need to be treated with anti-fungal medication. Yeast spreads quickly and could be difficult to get rid of, so it is possible that other family members may need to be treated as well.
Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Sixth Edition. Mosby. Philadelphia. 2005.