What Is the Main Cause of Mastitis?

Reviewed on 6/9/2021

What is mastitis?

Mastitis usually appears within the first 6 to 12 weeks of starting breastfeeding (lactation). Inflammation can make the breasts so tender that the mother finds it difficult to breastfeed her baby.
Mastitis usually appears within the first 6 to 12 weeks of starting breastfeeding (lactation). Inflammation can make the breasts so tender that the mother finds it difficult to breastfeed her baby.

Mastitis is breast inflammation characterized by painfully swollen, reddened breasts. Infection typically accompanies mastitis. Mastitis can affect anyone regardless of gender, although it usually occurs in breastfeeding (lactating) women.

The condition usually appears within the first 6 to 12 weeks of starting breastfeeding (lactation). Inflammation can make the breasts so tender that the mother finds it difficult to breastfeed her baby. Nonetheless, breastfeeding must not be stopped because it helps the mother recover faster from mastitis besides providing the baby’s nutrition. Breastfeed from the affected side for 2 hours to prevent breast engorgement (the breasts becoming swollen with milk). Do a gentle breast massage over any breast lumps in a circular motion moving toward the nipples. Breast massage can be done anytime, especially before feeding or expressing breastmilk or while taking a bath. Placing a heating pad over the area for 5 minutes may also help.

Mastitis causes the mother to feel drained and uncomfortable. It may be overwhelming for her to take care of herself and her baby while she has this condition. Hence, support from her partner or another family member or friend may be required. Mastitis symptoms and signs include the following:

  • Breast pain
  • Redness over the breast skin
  • Warm skin over the breast
  • Tenderness
  • Swelling over the breast or lump formation in the breasts
  • Burning sensation in the breasts
  • Flu-like symptoms such as fever, body ache, and chills

Although mastitis is quite painful, it can easily be managed with proper nursing, hydration, adequate nutrition, warm compresses, and over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications. If the mother does not feel better within 24 hours despite home management, she must seek medical help. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. In severe cases, the mother may need an incision and draining of the breast area if too much pus gets collected in the breast pocket.

What is the main cause of mastitis?

Mastitis is caused by the entry of bacteria present on the skin or in saliva inside the breast tissue. The breasts have thin tube-like structures called milk ducts that open on the surface of the skin. They are present in all genders. Thus, mastitis can affect people of all genders. Bacteria can enter the breast tissue through the openings of the milk ducts or cracks in the skin over the nipples. Mastitis most commonly occurs when milk gets trapped in the breast. This may happen when a milk duct is blocked or because of faulty breastfeeding techniques. Stagnant milk provides a home for bacteria to grow and multiply in numbers, causing mastitis.

Certain conditions may increase the risk of mastitis. They include the following:

  • Poor latching or attachment of the baby’s mouth to the breast
  • Injury to the nipple
  • Incomplete emptying of the breasts
  • Long breaks between breastfeeds
  • Blocked milk ducts (tiny channels that carry milk from the milk glands to the surface of the nipple)
  • Early cessation of breastfeeding
  • Wearing a tight bra
  • Poor nutrition
  • Congenital problems in the baby that may interfere with proper latching (such as tongue-tie)
  • Smoking

Does mastitis affect my risk of breast cancer?

No, mastitis does not increase or lower the risk of breast cancer. Cancer is caused by the uncontrolled growth of cells. Mastitis is caused by inflammation that is generally associated with a breast infection. The mother must, however, take medical advice for proper diagnosis and treatment of the condition. Long-term or chronic mastitis needs medical attention. Chronic mastitis may be due to certain underlying conditions such as tuberculosis, syphilis, or fungal infections.

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References
American Cancer Society. "Mastitis." Sept. 10, 2019. <https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/non-cancerous-breast-conditions/mastitis.html>.

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