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What is a Breast Infection?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2016
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Most of the time when people discuss breast infection, they are referring to breast-feeding mastitis. Mastitis is a condition that develops in breastfeeding women, often during the early weeks or months of breastfeeding. There are a couple of other kinds of breast infection that bear mention, and they do not generally occur in women who are nursing.

Since breast-feeding mastitis is fairly common, it does deserve some discussion. This condition may occur a few weeks after a baby is born and usually results from bacteria entering into the breast via nipples that have cracks or small openings, which causes inflammation of the breast tissue. Often, this breast infection occurs when infants have poor latch-on techniques, and it usually occurs in one breast only. Symptoms include redness around the area of infection, inflammation, discomfort in the breast, a sense that the breast is warm or hot, and sometimes fever. Treatment may be encouraging continuation of breastfeeding, and taking antibiotics. Seeing a lactation consultant may also be suggested to correct latch issues so the infection doesn’t occur again.

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It is possible to get an infection of the breast when breastfeeding is not involved. Some women may develop what is called periductal mastitis, which involves the area directly under the nipple. This may cause the breast to become red and tender, and women sometimes feel swelling of the lymph nodes under the arm. Both nursing and non-nursing women may also get an abscess as a result of an unresolved form of mastitis. These may need to be treated by draining the abscess.

It should be noted though that any time a lump or swelling of the breast is present, especially in non-nursing women, it has to be looked at as a potential indicator of breast cancer. Doctors may want to do mammograms or other tests to rule this out. It makes sense to take this precaution given the importance of early treatment of cancer.

A breast infection doesn’t have to occur within the breast. There are some common skin infections, which may also be extremely uncomfortable. In particular, women with larger breasts may be prone to getting fungal infections on the lower part of the breast, right where it protrudes from the chest. Bacterial infections can also occur in this area. If the area smells odd, is red, has broken skin or any evidence of pus, women should see their doctor. Usually treatment for this type of infection is to use topical anti-fungal or antibiotic cream. Such conditions typically clear in a few weeks.

Though this article has been focused on breast infection in women, it should be noted that men might develop mastitis and sometimes breast abscesses. These are rare conditions in the male population, but they can occur. Men with sudden pain, redness, swelling or inflammation of the breast or nipple should seek medical care promptly.

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