Breastfeeding is challenging enough as it is, but dealing with a breast infection on top of a hungry newborn is a nightmare—a very painful one. And even though a breast infection like mastitis is more common than you might think among nursing mothers, if left untreated it can lead to serious side effects or a breast abscess that may require surgical intervention. Yikes!
Luckily, mastitis is very easy to spot if you know what to look for. In fact, if you catch it early and apply some at-home prevention methods, you can reduce your chances of developing a full-blown infection. To learn more about mastitis and its symptoms and causes, we consulted OB-GYN Dr. Sheila Loanzon.
So, what is mastitis?
According to Dr. Loanzon, mastitis usually happens within the first three months of breastfeeding and is caused when bacteria grow in stagnant breast milk. She noted that it’s often the result of nipple trauma, milk overproduction, infrequent feedings, or a blocked milk duct.
What are the symptoms?
Wondering how you will know if you’re dealing with mastitis? It’s tough to miss. Dr. Loanzon says that mastitis is characterized by:
- Pain, swelling, and redness of the breast
- Flu-like symptoms, including the chills and a fever as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit (!)
- Can be accompanied by a noticeable breast lump
If you notice a suddenly painful ‘knot’ anywhere on your breast, or are feeling increasingly run-down, you might be at risk of a breast infection.
What should I do?
If you think you have an infection or are at risk of getting one, use warm compresses, warm showers, and manual massage and expression. Don’t stop nursing or pumping! The goal is to release the blocked duct and prevent an infection from occurring. A feeding baby or hospital-grade pump is the best way to do that. Obviously, if you have a fever or continued pain, visit a walk-in clinic, your OB-GYN, or your primary care doctor.
Treatment for a breast infection often requires oral antibiotics, and symptoms should alleviate within 24-48 hours. In rare cases, mastitis can return so be sure to complete the full antibiotic course and continue to watch for signs of infection.
To cope with the pain that often comes with a breast infection, talk to your doctor about which pain medications are okay to take while you nurse. Nipple cream can be helpful too.
Is there anything I can do to prevent mastitis?
To decrease your chance of developing an infection, you should make sure your baby fully latches on while feeding and that you nurse as often as you can and for as long as your baby is hungry (every 2-3 hours is best). Also, if possible, avoid putting excess pressure on the breast. Think of too-tight seatbelts, wire or sports bras, or holding other older children.
Of course nothing is foolproof. Additionally, every nursing or soon-to-be nursing mother can benefit from a little breastfeeding education. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a lactation consultant, talk to your OB-GYN, explore options at your local hospital, or even talk to other moms you know.
Here are some of our favorite books to help ease the transition to breastfeeding:
We've all heard/read/experienced the embarrassing moment of leaking through your shirt at work—it's almost a rite of passage for the working breastfeeding mom. This book helps to guide you through the duality when you return to your workplace.
This book gets into the nitty-gritty of breastfeeding and is your ultimate troubleshooting guide for breastfeeding at every stage of your baby's growth.
This article was originally published on January 15, 2019 and has been updated for timeliness.
Have you overcome mastitis? What tips do you have to share?