An infant learning to latch. Cracked nipples. Engorgement. Let it not be said that breastfeeding is a breeze. It requires a huge time commitment, and the stamina to endure a whole slew of obstacles that seem kind of cruel when all you want to do is nurse your newborn. And finally, when you think that everything you and Baby have gotten a groove down, you might have to deal with another impediment — mastitis. That’s why learning how to prevent mastitis can help keep things flowing… in all the right ways.
What Is Mastitis?
Mastitis is an inflammation of the breast tissue. Although it is possible to get it when you’re not nursing (also known as “non-lactational mastitis”), mastitis is most common in the first few weeks postpartum, when your boobs are working overtime, according to a PubMed study. While it commonly begins as an inflammation, most times mastitis doesn’t stay that way, Ashley Georgakopoulos, IBCLC, a Motif Lactation Director tells Romper. “Although mastitis is inflammation of the breast tissue, it is easily accompanied by an infection.” It occurs when the milk ducts in your breast become clogged due to extensive engorgement, and can lead to infection via bacteria entering your skin through cracks (like your nipples).
What Are The Symptoms Of Mastitis?
Chances are, if you have mastitis, you already know it. “Symptoms of mastitis can include a red, hard area of the breast, a plugged milk duct, fever, red streaks on the breast, and severe engorgement,” Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, LCCE, a certified lactation consultant tells Romper. “People describe it as the same feeling they have when they have the flu.” To figure out if it’s the flu or mastitis, you should feel your boobs; if they feel warm and engorged, you might have mastitis. Adds Georgakopoulos: “The inflammatory response is typically soreness and swelling around the affected area of tissue. Other symptoms may include fever, chills, and fatigue, as with many infections.”
Does Mastitis Go Away On Its Own?
Mastitis isn’t something you want to mess with. As with all potential infections, keep an eye on your symptoms to prevent it from spreading or worsening. That’s why being aware of any changes in your body can help your body fight the infection. “If it’s caught early enough and the parent rests, keeps the breastmilk flowing, and takes some extra vitamin C, sometimes it will resolve on its own,” O’Connor explains.
And there are other ways to make mastitis go away as well, starting with schooling that beautiful little baby on their latch. “Mastitis can be seemingly spontaneous, but in many cases can be resolved with improved latching and feeding techniques as milk flow can flush the tissue and resolve,” says Georgakopoulos. “In other cases, prolonged latching issues, ineffective positioning, lower immune health, antibiotics, and a multitude of other variables may require intervention.”
Is Mastitis Dangerous?
An infection in your body is never a good thing, especially one that comes into direct contact with your baby. And left untreated, mastitis can result in a big mess to your boobs — and your body, Rue Khosa, ARNP, IBCLC aka The Boob Boss tells Romper. “Mastitis can turn into a breast abscess, a pus pocket,” Khosa explains. “A radiologist can usually drain abscesses in the clinic, but a severe infection may require surgical incision and drainage and hospital admission for IV antibiotics.” When it gets to that stage, daily wound care (provided by a home health nurse), might be required.
Can You Still Breastfeed If You Have Mastitis?
It might freak you out to be feeding your baby from an infected boob, but it’s absolutely essential to continue nursing while you have mastitis. In fact, its encouraged, according to Georgakopolous. “The infection will not pass to the milk or baby — leukocytes and enzymes take care of that,” she says. “The strength and ability of the baby to draw milk out and relieve the inflammation is one of the best tools we have.” Adds Khosa: “Dicloxacillin, the antibiotic of choice for treating mastitis, is compatible with breastfeeding,” she says. “If you’re allergic to drugs in the penicillin family, you will need to work with your provider to find an antibiotic safe for the baby.” But the takeaway here is: don’t stop breastfeeding. If you opt to nurse from the healthier breast, keep pumping the affected boob to maintain your milk supply and to also prevent a worsening infection.
Still, your boobies might be sore from the mastitis, but some over-the-counter help is on the way. “If caught early and with good hydration, pain and inflammation reducers like Tylenol and Ibuprofen, effective and efficient breast emptying by breastfeeding or pumping frequently, heat, and gentle massage, one can avoid antibiotics,” says Khosa. “However, once you have persistent, worsening symptoms, antibiotics are the standard of care for treating mastitis.” Just be sure to take the full course, even if you start feeling better after the first 24 hours.
Can Mastitis Be Prevented?
How to prevent mastitis? “Most of the time, it is bad luck,” Andrea Tran, IBCLC, a lactation consultant tells Romper. “But if a woman has repeated cases of mastitis, she should get into the habit of checking to make sure her breasts are well-drained with feedings, and if there is an area that didn’t drain, she should massage that area with the next feeding to help it drain well.” Also, you might want to rethink what you’re wearing, since tight-fitting bras can be a cause of mastitis, a PubMed study reported. Frequent feedings can also help, according to Georgakopolous. “Effective feeding is the number one defense, which includes a non-problematic latch, effective and efficient milk removal, and frequent feedings,” she says. “That means not having a stringent feeding schedule with the intention to space feedings out.” And if anything seems out of the norm, you should always consult a lactation consultant, who can aid with common breastfeeding concerns.
Mastitis is definitely on the seedier side of breastfeeding. But by knowing how to prevent it from starting as well as what to do if you have it, you can boost the bonding that comes from breastfeeding your baby… with healthy boobs, that is.
Blackmon, M., Nguyen, H., Mukherji, P. “Acute Mastitis” 2021.
Fetherson, C. “Risk factors for lactation mastitis” 1998.
Ashley Georgakopoulos, IBCLC, a Motif Lactation Director
Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, LCCE, a certified lactation consultant
Rue Khosa, ARNP, IBCLC aka The Boob Boss
Andrea Tran, IBCLC, a lactation consultant