A breast abscess is a pus-filled lump that grows under the skin as a result of an infection. These abscesses usually form during breastfeeding, but anyone, regardless of sex, can develop one.
This article describes what a breast abscess is and explores the causes, symptoms, and treatments. It also looks at how to prevent the issue and when to see a doctor.
A breast abscess is a painful, pus-filled lump under the skin of the breast.
These lumps are more common among females who are lactating. According to a 2020 summary of scientific literature, lactational mastitis occurs in 2–3% of lactating females, 5–11% of whom may develop one or more abscesses.
As the authors of the 2018 review note, if a person does not receive treatment for mastitis, the infection can destroy tissue, allowing a sac to form beneath the skin and fill with pus. To the person, it may feel like a lump. This is a breast abscess.
Lactational breast abscesses typically occur due to an infection with Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcal bacteria.
When lactation is not involved, a breast abscess commonly results from a mix of S. aureus, Streptococcal, and anaerobic bacteria — bacteria that do not grow where oxygen is present, in places such as the gut.
An infection in the breast can occur when:
- bacteria enters through cracks in the nipple
- a milk duct is clogged
- foreign material enters the area, as with a nipple piercing or breast implant
If a person has developed a breast abscess, they may feel or notice a mass in the breast tissue along with symptoms of an infection of the breast. These symptoms may include:
- low milk production
- warmth in the area
- pain in the breast
- discharge from the nipple
- flushed skin
- a high temperature
- a headache
- flu-like symptoms
To diagnose a breast abscess, doctors typically ask questions about symptoms and perform a breast exam.
They may also request an ultrasound or take a biopsy of the fluid inside the lump.
Doctors may need to drain the fluid from the lump. They may extract the fluid with a needle or drain it by making a small cut in the skin.
Doctors typically use needle aspiration if the person is lactating or if the mass is smaller than 3 centimeters.
For people who develop these abscesses and are not lactating, there is a higher rate of the abscesses reoccurring, so a person may have to have more than one extraction or drainage.
If the drained abscess leaves a large cavity, a healthcare professional will need to pack it, to help drainage and healing.
Over-the-counter drugs, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help relieve the pain. A person can also use a warm compress to soothe inflammation.
Applying a moisturizer to the nipples can help keep them from cracking and providing a way for bacteria to enter the body and cause mastitis.
Anyone who has mastitis should receive treatment as soon as possible. If a person has symptoms of this infection for longer than 24 hours, they should speak to a doctor and ask for antibiotics.
According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), if a person is breastfeeding, they should avoid:
- having breasts that are very full for very long
- any sudden long periods between feedings
- pressure on the breasts from fingers, bras, or other clothing
It may also help to focus on good attachment during feeding. Signs of good attachment include:
- breastfeeding without pain
- the darker skin around the nipple showing more above the baby’s top lip than below their bottom lip
- the baby having a wide, open mouth
- the chin firmly touching the breast
- the baby having rounded, full cheeks
- rapid sucks that turn into slow, deep sucks
According to the Office on Women’s Health, who has mastitis symptoms for longer than 24 hours should speak to a doctor and ask for antibiotics.
Anyone who thinks that they may have a breast abscess should seek medical attention.
Contact a doctor right away if there is:
- a possible infection in both breasts
- pus or blood in breast milk
- red streaks on or near the affected area of the breast
- symptoms of mastitis that come on very suddenly
- severe symptoms of mastitis
Breast abscesses are painful, pus-filled lumps under the skin of the breast. They are a complication of a breast infection, which is called mastitis.
Mastitis tends to affect women who are breastfeeding, but anyone can develop this type of infection and a resulting abscess. People who smoke or who have obesity may have a higher risk.
Anyone who suspects that they have a breast abscess or who has had symptoms of mastitis for more than 24 hours should speak to a doctor.