Definition and Overview

Mastitis is a term used to describe a woman’s breast that has become infected and swollen. It is very common in breastfeeding mothers, especially within the first three months after giving birth.

It can be very painful and uncomfortable. But it is rarely serious. It can be easily treated and does not prevent mothers from nursing their babies. It can be prevented with self-care techniques, too. It can be avoided with proper lactating methods and by ensuring that breasts are emptied with each feeding.

Causes of Condition

The condition can occur if the milk ducts are clogged and the milk is unable to flow out. This causes milk to build up inside the breast. This leads to breast infections. In other cases, the condition occurs when bacteria enter the breast through small cuts in the nipples. Unless treated early, pus may form in the breast. This may require surgical draining.

Factors that can increase a woman’s risk of mastitis are:

  • Early weaning - Breastfeeding mothers would continue to produce milk until their babies are old enough to eat solid food. When they stop earlier than they should, the milk they produce (or at least a portion of it) can remain and build up in their breast. This can cause bacterial infection. Unfortunately, mastitis is one of the reasons why some mothers wean their babies earlier than expected. This is because the condition can be painful.

  • Lack of breastfeeding skills - Breastfeeding is a skill that must be learned to avoid the condition. New mothers must be taught how to ensure that their infants are able to latch onto their breast properly. Nursing a poorly attached baby can irritate the nipples. This can also prevent the baby from getting the maximum amount of milk with each feeding.

  • A history of mastitis. Women who have had the condition before are more likely to suffer from the same condition again when they have another baby.

  • Wearing bras that are too tight and restrict milk flow.

  • Certain diseases - Diabetes, chronic illnesses, and AIDS increase the risk of the condition.

Key Symptoms

Mastitis usually affects just one breast. Its symptoms are the following:

  • A palpable lump on the breast

  • Pain, swelling, and warmth of breast tissue

  • Nipple discharge, which may be white or may contain streaks of blood

  • Fever of 101 degrees or higher

  • Chills

  • Feeling tired and run down

  • Burning sensation inside the breast. This often gets worse during feeding.

  • Flu-like symptoms

  • General aches and pains

The above symptoms often occur several weeks after a woman starts breastfeeding.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

Symptoms of the condition should be brought to the attention of a doctor right away. Early treatment can prevent complications. It can also minimise interruptions to breastfeeding. In addition, early diagnosis can help rule out other breast diseases that share the same symptoms. These include breast cancer.

Patients can be treated by primary doctors or obstetricians. The condition is diagnosed based on the results of the physical exam and review of medical history. In some cases, a small amount of breast milk is taken for a lab test. This is done to determine what organism is causing the disease.

Treatment focuses on treating the infection and providing symptoms relief. Pain and inflammation are treated with pain relievers and antibiotics. Women on medications can continue to breastfeed their infants. In fact, moving fresh milk through the breasts can help clear the infection. If the patient finds it too painful to breastfeed, she can use a breast pump or her hand to express her milk. Using warm compresses and taking warm showers beforehand can make the process less painful. These measures can also promote healing.

Patients are also advised to see a lactation consultant. During their consultation, the patient is asked to show how she nurses her baby. The consultant will then identify areas of improvement. The patient is then taught the proper way to breastfeed.

Patients should be free from symptoms two to three days after taking their antibiotics. If not, they will be subjected to another round of tests. These include a mammogram and a biopsy in which a small amount of breast tissue is taken and used for further study.

References:

  • Mastitis: Causes and management. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/documents/fch_cah_00_13/en/.

  • Ferri FF. Mastitis. In: Ferri’s Clinical Advisor 2015: 5 Books in 1. Philadelphia, Pa.: Mosby Elsevier; 2015. https://www.clinicalkey.com.

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