Breastfeeding your baby can be a wonderful thing. It is not always an easy process, especially at the beginning. But when you and your baby both get the hang of things, nursing can be a good opportunity for mother and child to bond. And if you’re breastfeeding, you already know about all of the other benefits for both of you.
All this being said, nursing is not always a magical experience and can present some problems even after it’s a routine part of your life. One issue that some breastfeeding mothers deal with is mastitis. Mastitis is the inflammation or infection of the breast. It is most commonly associated with breastfeeding women, though it can happen in women who are not nursing and even sometimes in men. We’ll be focusing on the symptoms and treatment of lactation mastitis.
Mastitis Symptoms to Look Out For
Symptoms of mastitis can appear quickly. Most women will notice changes in how the breast feels and looks, especially while nursing. Common signs of mastitis include:
- Breast swelling
- Breast tenderness
- Breast is warm to the touch
- Redness or rash on the breast (crescent or wedge-shaped)
- Thickening of breast tissue
- Continuous pain and/or burning sensations when breastfeeding
- Breast lump
Some of these symptoms can be treated at home with some of the methods below before you go to the doctor. However, there are some symptoms that are indicators that you need to seek professional medical treatment more quickly. If you have the following mastitis symptoms, see your doctor immediately:
- You do not get relief by breastfeeding, applying heat, and massage within eight hours.
- You see pus or blood in your breastmilk.
- You see signs of infection in a cracked nipple.
- You get chills and your fever spikes above 101 F.
Mastitis Causes and Risk Factors
Lactation mastitis is caused by milk being trapped in the breast, known as stagnant milk, causing inflammation and infection. Sometimes a milk duct becomes blocked if the breast is not completely emptied during feedings, leading to breast infection.
Sometimes mastitis is caused by bacteria getting into the breast. The bacteria can come from your own skin or the baby’s mouth and may enter through the broken skin of a cracked nipple or through the opening of a milk duct. The bacteria will multiply in stagnant milk that is left behind.
Things that can increase your risk of developing mastitis include:
- Broken skin around cracked nipples where bacteria can enter. Broken skin is not always necessary for this to happen though.
- If you’ve had mastitis before, you are more likely to get it again.
- Pressure on breasts from tight-fitting bras, clothing, or seat belts can cause ducts to clog and develop into mastitis. Also, avoid carrying heavy bags with straps that press on the breasts for long periods of time.
- Being overly tired or stressed can increase your risk of developing mastitis. As you probably know, these are both things common among mothers with babies and small children.
- Smoking can increase the odds of suffering from mastitis.
- Poor nutrition can also lead to nursing problems, including mastitis.
Treatment for Mastitis
Left untreated, mastitis can lead to the formation of abscesses (collections of pus). Abscesses usually require surgical drainage by a doctor. There are treatments and management techniques that can help relieve mastitis symptoms that can help you avoid this complication:
- One of the most important things to do to treat mastitis is to keep to your regular feeding schedule. You may be tempted to stop nursing as often with the breast that is affected, but you will actually recover more quickly and even get relief by continuing to nurse regularly. You want to keep your milk supply up. If your baby does not empty the breast while nursing or if it is too painful for the baby to nurse, then hand express or pump after to completely drain the milk.
- Many women find that applying heat, either dry or moist, can help ease the discomfort and facilitate breast emptying during nursing. You can use a compress, take a shower, or lean over a filled sink or basin to soak the breast in warm water for about 10 minutes.
- Gently massaging the breast, especially any lumps or thickened tissue, before nursing can also be helpful. You may even want to massage the breast while the baby is nursing.
- Getting plenty of rest and avoiding stress are also important parts of treating mastitis. Any mother will agree that this is easier said than done, but try your best. Try snuggling with your baby in bed and nursing frequently. Keep necessary supplies like diapers, toys, snacks and water for yourself, and your phone nearby so you don’t have to leave bed too often.
- Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
- Take any prescribed medication, like antibiotics, your doctor has given you. Take the medication on schedule and complete the entire course even if you feel better.
- Pain relievers like ibuprofen may also help with discomfort, but make sure you clear any medication with your doctor when breastfeeding.
How to Prevent Mastitis
The best way to prevent mastitis is to make sure you are following the recommendations for healthy and effective breastfeeding. Talking to a lactation consultant can help you with the right nursing techniques and guide you to form habits that can prevent issues like mastitis.
To avoid getting mastitis, you can:
- Completely empty the milk from breasts when feeding.
- Make sure your baby has emptied one breast before moving to the other while nursing.
- Ensure baby is properly latched.
- Change nursing positions from one feeding to the next.
- Stop smoking. Talk to your doctor about safe and effective strategies for smoking cessation.
Make an Appointment
At Kernodle OB/GYN, we care for women at all stages of life, including during pregnancy and the postpartum period. So, if you have concerns about mastitis, or any other issue, we can help. To make an appointment at either our Burlington or Mebane office, call (336) 538-2367. Patients with a MyChart account can also schedule an appointment online.