Breast Disease Mastitis

Mastitis is a bacterial breast infection common among breast-feeding women. Breast mastitis results in breast pain, swelling and redness of the breasts accompanied by fever. If left untreated, mastitis can produce painful abscesses, cavities in the breasts caused by tissue death.

Mastitis SymptomsWhat Causes a Mastitis Breast Infection?

Breast-feeding and lactation are the most common causes of mastitis, and the condition is rare in women who aren’t lactating. Breast-feeding can produce small cracks in the skin on and around the nipple. Using bottles and pacifiers during breastfeeding can alter how an infant suckles, making these small cracks more likely. Bacteria from the baby’s mouth or the mother’s skin can enter these cracks and infect breast tissue. Painful tissue inflammation can then press on the breast’s milk ducts, altering milk flow.

Plugged milk ducts due to breast engorgement can also cause breast mastitis. Breast engorgement, in which the breast fills with unused milk, may be caused by an erratic nursing schedule, missed feedings or abruptly ceasing breast-feeding.

External pressure on the breasts during lactation can also play a role in the development of a breast infection. Objects or activities that can compress lactating breasts include:

  • Baby carriers
  • Breast pads and nipple shields
  • Excessive exercise
  • Heavy sling-style diaper bags and purses
  • Ill-fitting bras
  • Swimsuits
  • Tight clothing.

Risk Factors for Breast Infection

If you smoke while breast-feeding, you have a higher risk of developing a breast infection. Smoking increases your risk of breast engorgement and plugged milk ducts. Anatomical defects, surgical scars and fibrocystic breasts may also interfere with the flow of milk and increase the risk of breast infection during lactation. Fatigue, anemia and stress can also play a role in the development of breast mastitis.

Symptoms: Mastitis’ Effects on the Body

Generally, a breast infection affects only one breast. Mastitis can cause varied symptoms. Mastitis symptoms may include:

  • Breast pain and swelling
  • Heat or itchiness around the affected area
  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Lumpy, swollen or inflamed areas of breast tissue
  • Nipple discharge
  • Redness of the breasts.

Swelling and milk engorgement may also cause breast enlargement. In extreme cases, when left untreated, an abscess may develop.

Treating Breast Mastitis

The standard treatment for breast infection is antibiotic medication. Applying a hot, moist compress to the affected area or expressing milk in a hot shower can help to alleviate symptoms. If an abscess has developed, it will likely need to be drained or surgically removed.

Can I Breast-feed My Baby if I Have Breast Mastitis?

Usually, the answer is yes. Mastitis presents little danger of infection to your baby and continued breast-feeding prevents breast engorgement and milk stagnation, both of which can worsen symptoms of mastitis. The infection is not likely to pass to your baby through your milk, and it may well be that your baby already had the infection and passed it on to you during breastfeeding. However, because mastitis increases the amount of sodium in the affected breast’s milk, your baby may prefer to feed from the other breast. If the infant refuses to take enough milk from the infected breast, excess milk should be expressed to prevent breast engorgement.

Resources

Breast Cancer Care. (2009). Periductal mastitis. Retrieved November 17, 2010, from http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/breast-cancer-breast-health/diagnosis/benign/periductal-mastitis/

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2010). Mastitis. Retrieved November 17, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mastitis/DS00678

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2009). Breast infection. Retrieved November 17, 2010, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001490.htm