As an infection of breast tissue that causes breast pain, warmth, swelling, redness and occasional fevers or chills, mastitis commonly affects breastfeeding women even though it can also occur in those who are not breastfeeding.
Although it can happen much later while breastfeeding, lactation mastitis mostly occurs within the first 6-12 weeks after delivery (postpartum). This condition usually causes you to feel run down, which can make caring for your baby a bit more challenging.
Although mastitis is sometimes known to result in the weaning of children from breastmilk before their mothers intended, continuing to breastfeed your child while taking antibiotics for the condition is better for both of you.
The signs and symptoms of mastitis can appear suddenly. They include:
- Tender or warm breasts
- Swelling of the breast
- Malaise, a general feeling of illness
- A continuous pain or burning sensation, especially while breastfeeding
- Fevers of 101° F or greater
- Redness of the skin, often in a wedge-shaped pattern
Lactation mastitis tends to affect one breast only, and although it usually happens in the initial weeks after giving birth, it can occur anytime during breastfeeding.
When To See a Doctor
You will most likely feel ill with flu-like symptoms for a few hours before you notice that your breast has a tender and red area. You need to contact your doctor immediately if you recognize a combination of these signs and symptoms. To confirm the diagnosis, doctors often ask to see you.
When it comes to treating this condition, oral antibiotics are mostly effective, and your doctor might give you a prescription over the phone if you’ve had mastitis before.
You should see your doctor as soon as you can if your symptoms do not improve two days after you start taking antibiotics. You need to make sure your condition is not the result of a more serious issue.
As you probably know, breastfeeding is a learned skill. Poor breastfeeding techniques can cause the entrapment of milk in the breast, which is one of the primary causes of mastitis. Other causes include:
Bacteria entering the breast: Bacteria from your baby’s mouth or the surface of your skin can enter the milk ducts via a crack in the nipple’s skin or a milk duct opening. A breast that is not emptied sufficiently has stagnant milk, which provides breeding grounds for bacteria. Fortunately, your milk has antibacterial properties that keep your baby protected from the infection.
Blocked milk ducts: One of your milk ducts might become clogged if a breast is not emptied completely, which often causes milk to back up and leads to breast infection.
The risk factors for mastitis include:
- Sore or cracked nipples
- Breastfeeding during the first weeks after delivery
- Using one position to breastfeed, especially since it might not drain your breast fully
- Pressure that restricts milk flow such as that from using a seatbelt, wearing tight fitting bras or carrying heavy bags
- Being overly stressed or tired
- Poor nutrition
- A previous bout of mastitis
A collection of pus (abscess) often develops in the breast and forms an area of firmness when mastitis is related to a blocked duct or treated inadequately. An abscess typically requires surgical drainage. If you develop any sign or symptom of mastitis, you should consult a doctor immediately to avoid this complication.
Tests and Diagnosis
The diagnosis of mastitis is based on a physical exam, which involves considering every sign and symptom including breast pains, fevers and chills. A wedge-shaped area of redness on your breast, one that is tender to the touch and points toward the nipple, is also a clear sign of mastitis.
Your doctor needs to ensure you do not have a breast abscess, a complication that might occur when treatment is delayed. A culture of your breast milk is bound to guide your doctor towards determining the most suitable antibiotic for you, particularly if the infection is severe.
Doctors sometimes recommend a diagnostic mammogram since inflammatory breast cancer, a rare form of breast cancer, also causes redness and swelling. You may also need a biopsy to be certain you do not have breast cancer if the symptoms persist even after you’ve completed a course of antibiotics.
Treatments and Drugs
The treatment of mastitis typically involves:
Antibiotics: A 10-14 day course of antibiotics is usually necessary to treat mastitis, and you will most likely begin to feel better 24-48 hours after you start the treatment. However, continuing to take all the pills is important since it minimizes the chances of a recurrence.
Pain relievers: Your doctor might recommend a mild pain reliever.
Adjustments to breastfeeding techniques: Apart from ensuring your infant latches on correctly, you should also empty your breasts completely while breastfeeding. Your doctor could review breastfeeding techniques with you, or refer you to a lactation consultant for assistance and ongoing support.
Self-care: You should continue breastfeeding, drink extra fluids and rest enough to fight off the breast infection effectively. You may need further testing if your mastitis does not improve after you’ve taken antibiotics. As such, it is important that you follow up with your doctor.
Lifestyle and Home Remedies
It is not only safe to continue breastfeeding if you have mastitis but it also helps to clear the infection. To ease your discomfort:
- Keep breastfeeding as often and for as long as your child needs to feed
- Encourage frequent feedings by resting with your baby as much as possible, preferably in bed
- Avoid overfilling your breast with milk for prolonged periods (engorgement) before breastfeeding
- Always alternate your breastfeeding positions
- Drink lots of fluids
- Apart from applying warm compresses to your breast, you can also take a hot shower before you breastfeed or pump milk, especially if you find it hard to empty a portion of your breast
- Wear supportive bras
If you find that the infected breast is too painful to breastfeed or your baby refuses to nurse on it, you can try to hand-express or pump milk.
You should meet a lactation consultant for advice on how to start off a good breastfeeding relationship with your infant and avoid complications like mastitis. You can also get tips and invaluable advice about proper breastfeeding techniques from a lactation consultant.
To minimize the chances of mastitis, follow the following tips:
- As you breastfeed, drain all the milk from your breasts
- Let your child empty one breast completely before switching to the other
- For every breastfeeding session, change the position
- Ensure your child latches on correctly during feedings
Always check with your doctor or a lactation specialist if you have any questions or concerns during your breastfeeding journey.