10% of Breastfeeding Women Are Affected by Mastitis - Have You Checked Your Breasts Lately?

You may have heard of mastitis. Or, you may know someone who has experienced it before, considering that 20% of Australian women are affected by it...

By definition, Mastitis is the inflammation of the breast that may be accompanied by infection. It is usually caused by a blocked milk duct, but it can also be caused by bacteria such as Staphylococcus Aureus (Staph).

It can pop up at any time, but occurs mostly during the first 6 months post-partum, due to a range of factors including the baby not attaching well, damage to the nipple, blocked milk ducts, full breasts, stopping breastfeeding suddenly, tight clothing, and tongue ties.

It is important to seek medical attention early, so that you can avoid infection, as well as continuing with breastfeeding frequently (8-12 sessions per 24 hours) to drain the infection from the breasts. But, the amazing thing about your breast milk – among many other things – is that even with mastitis, it is still safe for your baby to drink!

What Does Mastitis Look Like?

While there are some mothers who experience early symptoms, such as feeling like they have a cold or flu, experiencing shivers, aches, nausea, or vomiting, other mums have no symptoms, and it can come without any signs. The breast can appear red in colour and can feel hot and painful and can have a shiny, streaky appearance (ouch). You may also notice a painful lump in your breasts that does not drain after feeding.

Your breasts will also most likely be looking and feeling very full which is why it is important to continue to breastfeeding or expressing from both breasts, particularly the affected breast, until it is drained well. Be sure to drain the other, unaffected, breast also, to avoid the same issue on the other side.

How is Mastitis Treated?

Like with all illnesses, it is important to relax and get enough rest – self-care is important and even though you’re busy with your new little one, it’s important to make time for yourself!

Read this blog on 15 things mums should not feel guilty about for some inspiration!

As mentioned earlier, it is important to continue with breastfeeding frequently however, if the affected breast is too painful to feed from, express either by hand or by using a pump to reduce fullness and keep the milk flowing.

You should also drink plenty of water, apply a warm compress before expressing or breastfeeding and ice packs after.

Check that you are using the most effective breastfeeding position for you and bub, it requires a surprising amount of coordination and patience! (Read here for tried and tested breastfeeding positions).

Use gentle massage while the breast is warm, concentrating on any lumps or sore areas. Use your fingertips or the palm of your hand to gently massage down toward your nipple. This can be done in the shower using the water to assist as a lubricant.

If you need to take pain-relief, anti-inflammatory’s such as ibuprofen and paracetamol are safe to take whilst breastfeeding.

Understanding Mastitis Prevention

If you have cracked or sore nipples, it is important to treat this in the early days to avoid blocked milk ducts or mastitis, as cracks can allow bacteria to enter the breast tissue. Most often, reasons for cracked or sore nipples include an ill-fitting breast shield or your baby biting during feeds.

Refer to our guide on how to measure your nipples to ensure that this isn’t the culprit. What can also be useful in managing sore nipples is contact nipples shields. These little “nipple hats” are great for if you have a baby who bites or if your nipples are sore, whilst maintaining close contact between you and your bub while breastfeeding.

It is also equally as important to “check-in” with your breasts, as mastitis can be caused by an untreated blocked milk duct or white bleb (white spot on the nipple). “Checking in” with your breasts is simple and you probably do it already, without noticing.

Look at your breasts and nipples closely in front of the mirror. Healthy Breasts are their usual size, shape, and colour and are evenly shaped without visible distortion or swelling and should remain so when you lift your arms.

While you're at the mirror, look for any signs of fluid coming out of one or both nipples (this could be a watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood or a white spot on the nipple).  A white spot on the nipple (known as white bleb), is when a tiny bit of skin overgrows the opening of the nipple and forms a blockage in the duct, or the formation of a string of hardened or fattier milk within the duct.

It’s important to get on top of blocked milk ducts or white bleb early, as they are both treatable, check out our blog for how to treat white bleb.

If you notice that your breasts may be looking or feeling a little different, contact your health care provider for more information.

Has anyone that you know experienced mastitis? What did they tell you about the experience and how they recovered from it? Let’s have a chat and support each other here or on the Medela Australia Facebook page!