What is a Breast Infection?

What is a breast infection?

A breast infection, also known as mastitis, is an infection of the breast tissue. Breast infections are most common among breastfeeding women when bacteria enter the baby’s mouth and infect the breast. This lactation is also known as mastitis. Mastitis also occurs in women who are not breastfeeding, but it is not that common.

The infection typically affects the fatty tissue in the breast, causing swelling, lumps and pain. Although most infections are due to breastfeeding or blocked milk ducts, a small proportion of breast infections are associated with rare types of breast cancer.

What causes breast infections?

Most breast infections are caused by what is commonly known as a staph infection. Staphylococcus aureus are bacteria. Streptococcus agalactiae It is the second most common cause.

For breastfeeding mothers, a blocked milk duct can cause milk to back up and start an infection. Cracked nipples also increase the risk of breast infection. Bacteria can enter the baby’s mouth and cause an infection. Bacteria that do not cause infection are also normally present on the skin even when there is no infection. If bacteria enter the breast tissue, they can multiply rapidly and cause painful symptoms.

You can continue to breastfeed even if you have a mastitis infection, as the bacteria do not harm your baby. This condition usually occurs in the first few weeks of breastfeeding, but can occur later.

Non-lactational mastitis occurs in women with weakened immune systems, including women with diabetes who have had lumpectomy with radiation therapy. Some infection-like symptoms are a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, but this is very rare. Learn more about mastitis.

Subareolar abscesses occur when the glands under the nipple become blocked and an infection develops under the skin. This can form a hard, pus-filled lump that may need to be drained. These types of abscesses normally only occur in women who are not breastfeeding, and there are no known risk factors for it.

What are the symptoms of a breast infection?

Symptoms of a breast infection can start suddenly and may include:

  • abnormal swelling, causing one breast to be larger than the other
  • breast tenderness
  • pain or burning during breastfeeding
  • a painful swelling in the breast
  • itching
  • hot nipple
  • shake
  • nipple discharge that contains pus
  • skin redness in a wedge-shaped pattern
  • enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit or neck area
  • fever over 38.3°C
  • feeling sick or rundown

You may experience flu-like symptoms before you notice any changes in your breasts. Consult your doctor if you have any combination of these symptoms.

inflammatory breast cancer

Symptoms of a breast infection may also be associated with inflammatory breast cancer, a rare but serious disease. This type of cancer begins when abnormal cells in the breast ducts divide and multiply rapidly. These abnormal cells then clog the lymphatic vessels in the skin of the breast (part of the lymphatic system that helps remove waste and toxins from the body), causing red, swollen skin that is hot and painful to the touch. Breast changes can happen over the course of several weeks.

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer may include:

  • thickness or visible enlargement of a breast
  • unusual warmth in the affected breast
  • discoloration of the breast, bruising, purple or red
  • tenderness and pain
  • dimpling of skin, similar to orange peel
  • enlarged lymph nodes under the arm or near the collarbone

Unlike other forms of breast cancer, women with inflammatory breast cancer do not develop lumps in the breast. This condition is often confused with a breast infection. If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your doctor.

How is a breast infection diagnosed?

In a woman who is breastfeeding, a doctor may typically diagnose mastitis based on a physical exam and review of your symptoms. Your doctor will also want to rule out whether the infection has formed an abscess that needs to be drained, which can be done during a physical exam.

If the infection continues to come back, breast milk may be sent to the lab to determine what bacteria may be present.

If you have a breast infection and are not breastfeeding, other tests may be needed to determine the cause. Testing may include a mammogram or even a breast tissue biopsy to rule out breast cancer. A mammogram is an imaging test that uses low-energy X-rays to examine the breast. A breast biopsy involves removing a small sample of tissue from the breast for laboratory testing to determine if there are any cancer cell changes.

What treatments are available for breast infections?

A 10-14 day course of antibiotics is usually the most effective treatment for this type of infection, and most women get relief within 48 to 72 hours. It is important to take all medications as prescribed to make sure the infection does not happen again. You can continue to breastfeed on most antibiotics, but if nursing is uncomfortable, you can use a breast pump to relieve engorgement and prevent loss of milk supply.

If you have an abscess due to a severe infection of the breast, it may be hooked (clinically cut) and drained for it. This will help the breast heal faster. You can continue to breastfeed, but seek guidance from a lactation consultant or healthcare provider on how to care for an abscess.

If your doctor determines that inflammatory breast cancer is causing your symptoms, your treatment will begin based on the stage (severity) of your cancer. Treatment typically includes chemotherapy (using intravenous chemicals to kill cancer cells), radiation therapy (using high-powered X-rays to kill cancer cells), or surgery to remove the breast and surrounding lymph nodes. Lumps and swellings during breastfeeding are very rarely cancerous. They usually happen because of a blocked or swollen milk duct.

How do I care for my breast infections at home?

While you’re being treated for infection, you can also take steps to relieve troubling symptoms at home:

  • Warm compresses can reduce pain and aid breastfeeding. Apply a warm, wet washcloth to the infected area and try four times a day for 15 minutes.
  • Empty the nozzle well.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Midol) can help relieve pain.
  • Use a variety of positions to breastfeed.
  • If possible, avoid prolonged entanglement before breastfeeding. Feed or pump when the time comes.

Talking to a lactation consultant to change your breastfeeding technique or position can help prevent the infection from returning.

How can I prevent breast infections?

If you’re breastfeeding, use these tips to reduce your chances of getting a breast infection:

  • Don’t let yourself be fooled because you’re late for feeding. Feed or pump.
  • Empty at least one breast and replace the other breasts at each feeding. If you can’t remember which breast was last, use a nurse reminder clip for your bra.
  • Avoid sudden changes in feeding schedules.
  • Avoid using soap and vigorously cleaning the nipple. Areola has self-cleaning and lubricating properties.
  • Include a small amount of lecithin or saturated fat in your diet each day to reduce the risk of repeatedly clogged ducts. You can do this with milk, meat (especially liver), and peanuts. Dietary supplements such as lecithin are not monitored or approved by the FDA. Read labels carefully and compare brands.
  • Massage the breasts, especially if you feel a thickening or lump.
  • Try different feeding positions. Baby ducts are most effective in drain ducts in the direction the chin points.
  • Apply a warm wet towel to the breast before feeding to increase milk flow.
  • Avoid tight-fitting bras, which can dig up and block the natural flow of milk.
  • If you feel a blocked duct, try breastfeeding, massaging your breast, applying heat, and repositioning the baby.

What is the long-term outlook for breast infection?

See a doctor if you are breastfeeding and have a recent history of blocked ducts and have flu-like symptoms, fever and breast pain with redness and warmth. Antibiotics are very effective in treating an infection. You’ll probably feel better within two days of starting antibiotics, but it’s important to finish the course of all antibiotics. The antibiotics chosen are safe for continued breastfeeding.

With diligent self-care and following your doctor’s instructions, you can reduce your risk of recurrence.


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Marinelli KA, et al. (2015). Therapeutic breast massage in lactation for the treatment of engorgement, clogged ducts and mastitis. DOI:

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Inflammatory breast cancer: Symptoms and causes.

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2015). Mastitis: lifestyle and home remedies.

Inflammatory breast cancer symptoms. (2012).

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