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What is Athelia?

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  • Written By: C.B. Fox
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2016
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Athelia is a condition in which one or both nipples are absent. This is a congenital condition, which means that it is present from birth. It is not possible to develop athelia later in life, and the loss of one or both nipples because of accident, disease or surgery is not considered athelia.

A rare condition, athelia is a birth defect that can develop during the first trimester. During the sixth week of gestation, a growing fetus begins to develop mammary glands, and if these do not mature normally, the baby might be born with athelia. The occurrence of this condition can also be traced to the period immediately before or after birth, because the nipples develop out of the breast tissue at this time. Occasionally, an infant might be born with amastia, which is the lack of all breast tissue on one or both sides, including the absence of the nipple.

Though athelia itself might be considered a benign condition, women missing nipples on both sides will be unable to breastfeed. If the condition is an isolated anomaly, this is the most serious problem for people with the condition. Athelia is, however, linked to a number of more serious diseases, including Poland sequence, ectodermal dysplasia and Yunis-Varon syndrome, all of which are congenital.

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In Poland sequence, the chest muscle is deformed or missing on one side of the body, which effects the development of nearby muscles and the hand on the same side. Often, infants born with this condition are missing ribs and show increased webbing between the fingers, which impairs motor ability. In girls, the breast and nipple on the affected side are usually absent. This disorder is classified as a nonspecific developmental field defect, and as such, there is no known cause. Poland sequence is a rare condition that affects the right side of the body nearly twice as often as the left.

A problem in the development of the ectoderm can cause athelia in people who are affected by ectodermal dysplasia or Yunis-Varon syndrome. The ectoderm is the outer layer of a very young embryo and later turns into the skin, nervous system, teeth and sweat glands. If the ectoderm fails to develop properly, these parts of the body might show abnormalities. The nipple, which is a modified sweat gland, might be absent on one or both sides in people affected by either of these conditions.

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Kat919
Post 2

@jennythelib - Well, they won't be the easiest years for her. I would encourage her mom to get her into counseling around when she starts puberty; she needs to know that it's OK to just be who she is. If she wants to date, that might be a possibility, and if she winds up not dating in high school, well, I know plenty of great people who didn't date in high school and are now happily married with families.

I wonder if she could be helped by prostheses like those worn by mastectomy survivors. There are probably specialty custom bra makers who could help her - maybe she could have a couple different sizes made so she seems to "develop"! I have no idea if that would be a possibility or not, but it's definitely worth looking into. Good luck to your friend and her daughter!

jennythelib
Post 1

A friend of mine has a daughter with athelia and amastia. Aside from being obviously unable to breastfeed, should she ever want to, the doctors think she will otherwise develop normally, thank goodness.

The little girl is only seven now, but her mother is really worried about the teenage years. Obviously, she doesn't want her to have more surgeries than necessary, so they want to wait until she is basically grown up before having breast implants (and I think they can do cosmetic nipples for her, too).

That leaves a lot of weird years for the poor kid to go through when she will be just absolutely flat as a pancake! She'll look great and be as big as she wants one day, but I don't know *how* she's going to get through high school.

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