What is Mastitis?
Mastitis is essentially an infection of the breast tissue. The term is widely used to cover a range of related conditions, all of which involve inflammation of, and often pain in, the breast tissue.
Mastitis is most commonly associated with breast feeding and is then termed ‘lactation or peurperal mastitis’. So bear in mind, if you have an inflamed, painful breast (or breasts), whilst breastfeeding than this condition is the most likely cause.
Note: ‘Peurperal’ literally means ‘relating to the period of time following childbirth’. In contrast, when the condition occurs in non-lactating women it is often termed ‘non-puerperal’ mastitis.
Symptoms of Mastitis
The most common cause of mastitis is an over-supply of breast milk. However, this condition can also be caused by blocked breast ducts due to other reasons.
The symptoms are very similar to other infections. These include:-
- Swelling and inflammation of the breast tissue
- Redness of the breast tissue
- Warm or hot to the touch
- Pain in and around the affected area
- An area of hardness or a breast lump around the affected area
- Nipple discharge
Inflammatory Breast Cancer and Mastitis
Do not worry, the symptoms listed above are most likely to be associated with mastitis and nothing more serious. However, there is a rare, but very aggressive type of cancer called inflammatory breast cancer that has very similar symptoms.
In addition to the above symptoms, with inflammatory breast cancer there can be:-
- Orange peel appearance of the skin
- Thickening of the skin on the breast, possibly with ridges or welts
- Inverted nipple on the affected breast
- Swollen lymph nodes under the arm of the affected breast
Due to the similarities between mastitis and inflammatory breast cancer it is important to closely monitor symptoms.
If the symptoms of mastitis are not resolved within five weeks, a full medical investigation to rule out breast cancer should be initiated.
Does Mastitis increase the risk for breast cancer?
Other Related conditions
Importantly, ‘mastitis’ is, in fact, a general term for breast infection. However, there are a variety of other terms that are associated with the presence of inflammation, discharge and tissue damage of the breast.
Idiopathic granulomatous lobular mastitis (IGLM)
Idiopathic granulomatous lobular mastitis (IGLM) is an uncommon chronic inflammatory breast disease. IGLM often forms a palpable breast mass that can mimic invasive breast cancer both on mammogram and clinical examination.
It is important to note that IGLM is a benign condition. Indeed IGLM is a breast disease that often occurs in younger women following the birth of a child. However, IGLM has not been shown to be consistently related to either breastfeeding or the use of oral contraceptives.
Treatment for Mastitis
As mentioned earlier, simple mastitis is often treated with antibiotics. Symptoms should begin to improve within 48 hours and certainly over 5 days. If any symptoms persist it is VERY important to see your physician as soon as possible.
Because mastitis related to breastfeeding is caused by an excess of milk blocking the ducts regularly expressing milk and breastfeeding the baby will help.
Other self-help tips are aimed at easing the symptoms and include:-
- Drink plenty of fluids to help fight the infection
- A warm flannel or warm bath to the affected area may help ease the pain
- Get plenty of rest and a good night sleep
- Take over-the-counter mild painkillers to ease discomfort and pain
A Few Questions and Answers
How can I prevent mastitis if I am breastfeeding?
The best way to prevent this condition is to get plenty of rest and also to eat a healthy, balanced diet whilst you are nursing. Also, avoid letting your breasts become overly filled with milk. If your breasts are not empty after nursing or expressing milk, or you have a plugged duct, I recommend you use warm compresses and massage to get the milk out.
Furthermore, avoid underwired or ill-fitting bras that can block the milk ducts. Lastly, ensure that the baby is properly ‘latched on’ whilst breastfeeding. Your midwife will help you with this. Another breast feeding tip is to ensure that the baby does not favour one breast. Indeed be sure to alternate breasts at feed times
tie a little ribbon to your nursing bra strap and alternate it to remind you.
Is it safe to continue breastfeeding with mastitis?
You can safely continue breastfeeding your baby or express breast milk to feed your baby during illness and treatment. Your little one is the most efficient pump you have for emptying your breasts. In addition, your breast milk is still safe for your baby to drink. This is because any bacteria in your milk will be destroyed by the baby’s digestive juices.
- Jin Kyung An, Jeong Joo Woo, Seung A Lee (2016) Non-puerperal mastitis masking pre-existing breast malignancy: importance of follow-up imaging Ultrasonography 2016; 35(2): 159-163. https://www.e-ultrasonography.org/journal/view.php?number=98
- Spencer JP (2016) Management of mastitis in breastfeeding women. Am Fam Physician. 2008 Sep 15;78(6):727-31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18819238