Mastitis in breastfeeding women

What is mastitis?

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Mastitis is inflammation of the breast tissue. It is very common in breastfeeding women and is most common during the first few months after delivery. It is caused by milk building up in and blocking the tubes (ducts) through which milk flows to the outside. Some of the milk is forced into the surrounding breast tissue as a result, and causes the inflammation.

The milk duct and breast tissue can become infected consequently causing a more severe form of mastitis. This can happen if there are cracks on the nipples.

What are the symptoms?

Mastitis comes with a great deal of pain. It usually starts quite suddenly, affecting just one breast. The breast may feel lumpy and the area appears swollen and red. If there is a superimposed infection, fever, chills and sweating may be present.

What treatments work?

Mastitis usually doesn’t need treatment except symptoms are severe and fail to resolve soon. Then antibiotics may be prescribed.

The best thing to do is to continue breastfeeding, starting with the affected breast first. The milk is harmless to the baby, and this way, the blockage is cleared. The breast needs to be emptied completely. If however, the baby refuses to feed from the affected breast, or it’s too painful, a breast pump may come in handy.

Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may be used, but not aspirin, as this can cause problems for babies. Hot baths or cold compresses may also help to take care of the pain.

Antibiotics may be prescribed if symptoms are severe or haven’t improved after about a day. While taking antibiotics, breastfeeding should still continue. The antibiotics must be finished even when the symptoms start resolving so that an abscess doesn’t form in the breast (an abscess occurs when pus collects in a section of the breast and forms a lump). This takes about 10 to 14 days.