A breast infection occurs when bacteria invade the breast, resulting in inflammation. This is called mastitis. It can cause an infected lesion on the surface of the breast and pain deep in the breast.

Although mastitis is often associated with lactation, people who are not lactating can also get breast infections.

This article explores breast infections in more detail, including their symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.

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In some cases, a person with a breast infection may notice an infected lesion on the surface of the breast. Additionally, a breast infection can cause pain deep in the breast.

Other breast infection symptoms can include:

Some people may develop ulcers on their skin, which may leak pus or blood.

Mastitis is a common type of breast infection. It is particularly prevalent during lactation because the nipples can crack, allowing bacteria to enter the breast.

A milk duct can also become clogged due to incomplete breast emptying or excess pressure on the breast. Clogged milk ducts allow bacteria to multiply, which can lead to an infection.

There are several types of breast infections, including:

  • Central or subareolar infection: This occurs when the milk ducts become infected or inflamed. It is most likely to develop in people who smoke. It can cause nipple changes, such as nipple retraction or unusual discharge.
  • Granulomatous lobular mastitis: This causes a painful but noncancerous mass to develop in the breast.
  • Peripheral, nonlactating infection: This type of infection often leads to inflammation or a visible abscess on the breast. It commonly occurs in people with diabetes or those who smoke.
  • Cellulitis: This is a skin infection more common in people with large breasts or those with a history of breast surgery or radiotherapy. It can cause a rash that can spread quickly if not treated.
  • Inflammatory carcinoma: This cancer is rare, accounting for just 1–5% of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States. It can cause the breast to become swollen and discolored, and sometimes the skin can appear dimpled, like an orange peel. As this cancer is very aggressive, a person who has any symptoms should contact a doctor.

To make a diagnosis, a doctor needs to know about a person’s symptoms. They may ask whether a person is breastfeeding, has a history of breast trauma, or has had surgery or treatments on the breast. Additionally, they may ask if a person has fever, chills, or fatigue.

The individual may also need a physical examination of the breast and nipple.

In some instances, a doctor may take a swab of breast discharge. They can send this for tests to determine the type of bacteria growing in the breast. Knowing the type of bacteria can help a doctor prescribe the right medication.

Depending on a person’s symptoms, a doctor may order the following tests:

  • Mammogram: This test uses low dose X-rays to look for breast cancer and other changes in the tissue.
  • Ultrasound: A breast ultrasound uses high frequency sound waves and makes a computer image of the breast tissue. It can show breast changes, such as fluid-filled cysts, that are difficult to see on mammograms.
  • Breast biopsy: The biopsy procedure takes a small sample of tissue from the breast using a needle or minor surgery, then sends it for examination in a laboratory.

It is important to note that a healthcare professional should evaluate any breast infection. Usually, if a person is breastfeeding, the infection is caused by lactation and is relatively simple to treat. However, in people who are not lactating, an infection may be more serious. If they experience symptoms that do not resolve, they should contact a doctor.

Treatment for a breast infection often depends on the underlying cause and the severity of symptoms. However, it is important to receive early treatment to prevent complications.

If a bacteria is causing the infection, a doctor usually prescribes antibiotics. People should always take the full course of antibiotics, even if they start to feel better before completing treatment.

Some people with breast infections have an abscess, a tender lump containing pus. A doctor can drain the abscess, which will reduce pain. They will likely then prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.

Warm compresses can help relieve mastitis pain. People can also take medications, which may include antibiotics to treat the infection and ibuprofen to relieve pain and inflammation.

Breast abscesses are more common in lactating people than nonlactating people.

Incision and drainage can treat breast abscesses. A doctor uses a scalpel blade to create a small opening in the skin. They may then insert a drain into the wound or leave it open for natural drainage.

However, if an abscess is small, a doctor may attempt needle aspiration instead. The procedure involves using a needle to draw out the infected material.

Home remedies

A person can use a variety of home remedies to minimize the pain and discomfort of an infection, including:

Milk stasis, when the milk is no longer flowing freely, is the main cause of mastitis. The milk can block milk ducts, creating a clogged duct. The area of the clog will often look inflamed or swollen and feel tender to the touch. Milk stasis can also create a sore, white spot on the nipple opening. Doctors call this a bleb.

Clearing the plugged duct or removing the bleb can prevent mastitis. A person can gently remove a bleb at home with a warm compress, or they can contact a doctor.

Additionally, the following may reduce discomfort and minimize the likelihood of the infection returning:

  • continuing to breastfeed or pump frequently, unless the doctor says otherwise
  • using the infected breast first when breastfeeding to ensure that it empties
  • applying warm, moist compresses to the painful breast, especially right before nursing or pumping
  • trying to adopt different positions during breastfeeding so that all areas of the breast can empty fully
  • while breastfeeding or pumping, massaging the areas of the breast that feel hard with gentle pressure

If bacteria enter the breast, it can cause an infection, leading to painful inflammation. It can cause tenderness, pain, and flu-like symptoms.

Doctors usually treat these infections with antibiotics. People can take OTC medications and use home remedies to manage their symptoms.

An individual can reduce their chances of developing mastitis while breastfeeding by nursing or pumping often to ensure their milk can flow freely.

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