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What is Mastitis?

By: Jo Johnson - Updated: 9 Oct 2010 | comments*Discuss
Mastitis; Breast-feeding; Milk; Milk

An inflammatory disorder, mastitis is a common and painful condition of the breasts that most commonly affects breast-feeding mothers or those who have developed an infection of the breast tissue.

It is usually seen in those of child bearing age, especially those who are smokers. Most episodes are acute but it can become chronic in a small number of cases.It is possible for men to develop mastitis but this is extremely rare.

What Causes Mastitis?

If you are not breast-feeding, it is normally caused because of an infection in the breast. Nowadays this is often due to a piercing of the nipple that has not been carried out properly or has not been looked after sufficiently.

It is also possible that an infection elsewhere in the body has spread to the breast tissue, or as a consequence of some serious medical conditions such as tuberculosis or syphilis.

Occasionally athletes may experience mastitis because their nipples are under constant friction and will become inflamed and sensitive.

For those who are breast-feeding it is most often caused by having a cracked nipple in which bacteria can enter and invade the tissues. These bacteria are almost always present on the surface of the skin where they cause no harm, but are harmful when entering the body.

Other possible reasons could be that the breast is not fully emptying its contents during a feed or that a milk duct has become blocked.

Signs & Symptoms

The initial symptom of mastitis is frequently a growing sensitivity of the breast. The tissue can become red and swollen and eventually can grow to be extremely painful.The tissue can become lumped and hard and occasionally there may be some discharge from the nipple.

Lymph nodes found in the armpit can become swollen as the body tries to fight the infection.As the inflammation and infection grow you may feel more tired and have a high temperature. If the breast has an infection, the taste of the milk might be affected and your baby may not want to feed from the affected side.

Treating Mastitis

Many cases of mastitis can be treated at home using heat packs held firmly to the area. If you are breast feeding carry on using the affected side if able (offer this side first), if you're not able to do this or the breast isn't fully emptied, express milk from that side in order to continue producing milk and to encourage any blockage of the milk ducts to clear itself. If needed take some pain relief such as paracetamol; do not take aspirin.

If the infection is particularly bad it must be treated with antibiotics as soon as possible. Please speak to your midwife or GP.Some people use cabbage or lettuce leaves that have been kept in the fridge for a soothing remedy. This may be an old wives tale, but there are many women who swear by it!

Preventing Mastitis

The easiest way to prevent mastitis if you are breast-feeding is to make sure that each breast is emptied at feeding times. Alternating the breasts and ensuring that your baby is latched on correctly will also help. If it is not possible to empty the breast in one feed, express the remainder.

Keep the breast and nipple clean and dry and avoid ill fitting or uncomfortable bras and clothing.If you have an infection elsewhere in the body, make sure that it is treated appropriately with antibiotics if needed.

Although mastitis is a common occurrence it can become extremely painful if left to develop. Prevention is always better than cure but in some cases it cannot be prevented. Treat as soon as any inflammation or pain noticed in order to stop the problem worsening.

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