Breast discharge usually happens when a person is pregnant or nursing, and it can also occur shortly after childbirth or a pregnancy loss. Hormones play a key role in the production of this discharge.

In some cases, a person may experience breast discharge that is not related to pregnancy. This symptom is often not a cause for concern, but it can occasionally signify a health issue.

This article provides more information on the link between hormones and breast discharge and explains how to tell whether breast discharge is normal.

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Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers. They play an important role in producing breast milk, including the clear, white, or yellow colostrum that usually comes out of the nipples in the days before a person’s breast milk comes in.

Although colostrum usually appears shortly after birth, many people notice that they produce colostrum during pregnancy or after a pregnancy loss. Hormonal changes are responsible for this colostrum production.

However, hormonal changes unrelated to pregnancy may also cause breast discharge.

Situations in which normal nipple discharge can occur include:

Normal discharge does not usually signal a problem. However, if the pattern of discharge changes, or discharge appears without any stimulation, it could indicate an infection or another serious issue.

If there are no other symptoms, breast cancer is unlikely to be the cause. This disease usually causes additional symptoms, such as a lump or change in the texture of the nipple. However, any change in the breasts warrants a call to a doctor.

Nipple discharge can be one of several colors.

The color of the discharge does not necessarily reveal much about its cause. Instead, it is important to look at other symptoms.

Clear discharge

Clear discharge is very common. Stimulation of the breasts may cause small quantities of clear nipple discharge, especially if a person squeezes the breasts or frequently stimulates them.

The breasts respond so strongly to stimulation that it is actually possible to induce lactation even without being pregnant or giving birth. People who attempt to do this may notice clear discharge that grows in volume and gets progressively thicker.

Pregnant people, those who have just given birth, nursing parents, and those who have just lost a pregnancy often notice clear nipple discharge.

White discharge

White nipple discharge is common among pregnant people and those who are nursing or have just given birth.

In the hours following childbirth, a person may notice an increase in colostrum, which is a clear, white, or yellow fluid. Some nursing parents notice that white discharge or milk continues for months after weaning.

In people who are not nursing or pregnant, white discharge can still be normal, especially if it happens following intense nipple or breast stimulation.

Doctors use the term galactorrhea to refer to the production of breast milk or milky discharge outside of pregnancy and breastfeeding or chestfeeding.

Some causes of galactorrhea other than nipple stimulation include:

  • conditions that affect the pituitary gland in the brain, such as a benign tumor
  • medications that affect the hormones, such as birth control pills or estrogen supplements
  • some herbal supplements, including fennel and anise
  • hormonal imbalances
  • some other medications, such as antidepressants

Yellow discharge

Colostrum, the fluid that appears before breast milk, can be yellow, clear, or white, or it can change colors. Some people notice it in pregnancy or shortly after giving birth, even if they exclusively bottle feed.

Yellow discharge may also appear as a result of nipple stimulation.

People with mammary duct ectasia may also notice yellow or white nipple discharge. In those with this condition, a milk duct in the wall of the breast widens and thickens, causing discharge to come out of the breast. It is more common in people nearing menopause.

Duct ectasia often goes away on its own or gets better with warm compresses. In rare cases, and only if the condition is causing pain, a doctor might recommend surgically removing the duct.

Green discharge

Green nipple discharge can be normal. A person who is pregnant or nursing might notice that their discharge sometimes looks slightly green.

However, green discharge may sometimes mean that there is an infection in the breast. Infections are more common following an injury to the breast or when breastfeeding or chestfeeding.

In many cases, an infection happens when the milk duct becomes clogged.

Some signs and symptoms of an infection include:

  • pain, itching, or burning in the breast
  • a swollen spot in the breast
  • a hot spot in the breast
  • fever or flu-like symptoms
  • a sudden change in breast milk production, such as producing less breast milk or having trouble expressing milk

Red discharge

Although red discharge may seem alarming, it can be normal in nursing parents, and it is safe for them to continue breastfeeding or chestfeeding. If the red discharge continues, however, it is advisable to see a doctor. The blood might indicate an infection or injury.

A breast growth called a benign papilloma may also cause red discharge. A person might also notice a lump, and the discharge may only come from one nipple.

A papilloma is not cancer, and a single papilloma does not increase the risk of breast cancer. In most cases, a doctor can surgically remove the growth.

It is not always possible to stop breast discharge. Some options that may help include:

  • refraining from stimulating the breasts
  • applying warm compresses to the breasts
  • nursing more frequently if a person has unusual discharge in their breast milk or thinks that a duct has become clogged

A person should call a doctor if:

  • they have breast pain or swelling
  • they have a lump in their breast, or the shape of the breasts or nipples changes
  • breastfeeding becomes too painful
  • nipple discharge changes
  • red or bloody discharge does not go away on its own

Discharge from the nipples is common and often normal, even in a person who is not pregnant or nursing.

However, early intervention can be life saving if there is a serious infection or cancer. Therefore, if a person thinks that they are experiencing abnormal breast discharge, and the issue does not go away after a few days or is very painful, they should see a doctor right away.