A clogged milk duct can cause swelling and a tender lump. It can feel like intense pain and itchiness. Blockages typically resolve independently, but warm compresses, massages, and other home remedies can help.

The breasts contain a series of ducts that carry milk from the mammary glands to the nipples when a person is chestfeeding.

A 2011 study of 117 breastfeeding women found that 4.5 percent experienced clogged ducts at some point during the first year of breastfeeding. A duct that remains clogged can cause mastitis, a painful infection in the breasts.

Although a clogged milk duct can be painful, it is often treatable with home remedies. In this article, we look at the symptoms and causes of clogged ducts, home remedies to try, and when to see a doctor.

Woman breastfeeding her childShare on Pinterest
Tatyana Tomsickova Photography/Getty Images

The most common symptoms of a clogged duct include:

  • a tender, painful, and lumpy breast
  • heat and swelling in the breast
  • slower milk flow on one side
  • generally feeling unwell
  • a small white dot on the nipple called a milk bleb

Occasionally, a clogged duct can cause a mild fever. As a fever can also occur due to a breast infection, people who experience fever alongside breast pain should see a doctor. This may require treatment with antibiotics and a physical assessment to rule out a breast abscess.

Clogged milk ducts are most common in women who are breastfeeding, have recently given birth and opted not to breastfeed, or have recently stopped breastfeeding.

Blocked ducts are more likely to occur if a breastfeeding woman does not thoroughly drain the breast, as this can allow milk to accumulate and block the duct.

Women experiencing other breastfeeding difficulties, such as oversupply, a baby with a weak latch, or pain that impedes frequent nursing, are more vulnerable to clogged ducts.

However, anyone who is breastfeeding can experience a clogged duct. Some risk factors include:

  • a poor latch by the baby
  • not fully draining the breasts during each nursing session
  • an irregular breastfeeding schedule
  • short or skipped breastfeeding sessions
  • pressure on the breasts due to an uncomfortable nursing position, tight-fitting clothes, or a bra with an underwire

Occasionally, people can get a clogged milk duct that is unrelated to breastfeeding and is known as duct ectasia.

It is usually possible to treat the symptoms of a clogged duct at home. Most clogged ducts resolve within 1–2 days, with or without treatment.

Regular, consistent breastfeeding is the fastest way to resolve a clogged duct. It is essential to empty the breast with the clogged duct completely during each breastfeeding session. A fully drained breast feels lighter and produces little or no milk on squeezing.

Using a breast pump to express milk after each breastfeeding session can help if the baby has a weak latch or cannot drain the breast entirely.

However, a person should be cautious of excessive pumping as this can produce pressure, which the body responds to as a threat. Ultimately, this can increase the risk of mastitis.

Some other strategies that can clear the clogged duct and relieve pain include:

  • applying a cold or ice pack to the affected area to provide relief and reduce swelling
  • breastfeeding on demand and using different breastfeeding positions
  • wearing loose-fitting clothing and not wearing bras with underwire
  • getting extra sleep and relaxing will help speed up the healing process

Doctors may also recommend the BAIT method to treat a clogged milk duct. This refers to the following:

  • Breast rest: Mothers are encouraged to breastfeed by their baby’s feeding cues, starting on the healthy breast for the next few days until things feel better.
  • Anti-inflammatories: NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, are helpful and should be taken as directed by a healthcare provider.
  • Ice: A person should apply ice/cold packs for 10-20 minutes every one to two hours while awake.
  • Tylenol: Pain relief medications like Tylenol are recommended and should be taken as instructed.

Sometimes, a clogged duct is intensely painful or does not resolve itself. A clogged duct that does not resolve can lead to mastitis, which is inflammation of the breasts due to infection. Although mastitis can be painful, a doctor can usually treat it with antibiotics.

People should not try to treat mastitis or suspected mastitis at home. Seeing a doctor as soon as possible for treatment will reduce the risk of complications.

The most important strategy for preventing clogged ducts is allowing the baby to drain each breast completely during a breastfeeding session.

A newborn can take anywhere from 20-45 minutes to empty the breast, so patience is key.

Some signs that the baby has drained the breast include:

  • not hearing swallowing when the baby sucks
  • the breast feeling lighter
  • no sense of fullness or tingling in the breast

Some other steps that can reduce the risk of a clogged duct include:

  • wearing loose-fitting clothing, such as a comfortable nursing shirt and a wire-free bra
  • avoiding positions that put a lot of pressure or weight on the breasts
  • breastfeeding on demand or on a regular schedule that allows frequent drainage

Women who have an oversupply of breast milk, which is more milk than the baby needs, have a higher risk of developing a clogged duct. A lactation consultant can offer advice on reducing this excessive supply.

A clogged duct can be painful, but it is not a medical emergency. However, it is best to see a doctor if the following symptoms occur:

  • intense pain
  • a clogged duct that does not go away after 1–2 days
  • fever
  • clogged ducts that keep coming back

A clogged duct can often signify an unsuitable breastfeeding position or a problem with the baby’s latch. These issues are common when the woman or baby is new to breastfeeding and still mastering this skill.

Working with a lactation consultant can help breastfeeding women reduce the risk of a clogged duct. La Leche League support groups may also be helpful.

These meetings offer women the chance to try a variety of suitable breastfeeding positions and seek advice from people with lots of breastfeeding experience.

Below are some commonly asked questions about clogged milk ducts.

How do you unclog a milk duct?

Ways to unclog a milk duct and relieve any associated pain include:

  • applying a cold or ice pack to the affected area
  • breastfeeding on demand and using different breastfeeding positions
  • wearing loose-fitting clothing and not wearing bras with underwire
  • getting extra sleep and relaxing will help speed up the healing process
  • using the BAIT method (breast rest, anti-inflammatories, ice, and Tylenol)

Should I pump to clear a clogged milk duct?

The La Leche League, a charity that advocates for breastfeeding education and training, warns against excessive pumping to clear a clogged milk duct.

Whilst it might be tempting to ’empty the breasts’, when more milk is produced than a baby drinks, this can produce pressure which the body responds to as a threat. This can increase the risk of mastitis.

How to tell the difference between a clogged milk duct and mastitis?

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a clogged milk duct and mastitis. They share similar symptoms, including sore and tender breasts.

Unlike a clogged milk duck, however, mastitis may include other signs such as:

A clogged milk duct is a common issue for breastfeeding women and can lead to pain, swelling, and a slower milk flow. Left untreated, it may even result in mastitis, a painful breast infection.

Causes range from a poor latch by the baby, irregular nursing, or tight clothing.

Home remedies for a clogged milk duct involve consistent breastfeeding, massaging, heat or cold packs, loose clothing, and ample rest.

To prevent a clogged milk duct, a person should allow for complete breast drainage during feeding, wear comfortable clothing, and avoid breast pressure.

If a person experiences persistent symptoms, intense pain, fever, or recurring clogged milk ducts, they should seek medical advice. La Leche League meetings and lactation consultants can provide additional support and advice.