Breast cysts are growths on the breast. They are sacs filled with fluid and most often are considered to be benign (not cancerous). A person can develop a single cyst or they can have many cysts in one or both breasts. These breast cysts can also vary in size and shape which often makes women who discover that they have them worried when they first find one.
There are glands inside of the breasts (mammary glands) that produce milk when a woman gives birth to a child. However, sometimes, fluid can build up in those glands, even if the woman has never had a child. This fluid buildup causes breast cysts.
While there is no census on why breast cysts develop for some women and not others, there are some signs that hormone changes during menstruation may contribute. They may also develop if a woman has excess estrogen in her body and it stimulates the breast tissue into action when it shouldn’t be stimulated.
The primary symptom of a breast cyst is a lump or protrusion in the breast tissue. Some breast cysts are easily palpable and can be felt just under the surface of the skin, particularly near the armpit. These lumps are often round or oval and seem to have smooth edges and are easily movable under the surface of the skin.
Breast cysts may cause pain or tenderness in the breasts as well. They may also feel swollen or a person may notice swelling in one area of the breast. The breast lumps may also grow and become more sore or tender when a person is about to get their period or they are menstruating and may get smaller after menstruation is done. Some women also experience nipple discharge as a result of their cysts.
Breast cysts, in both men and women, are caused by fluid build-up in the glands that spread out, like flower petals, from the areola. The cause of this build-up is generally unknown but could be due to hormonal changes, extra estrogen stored in the tissue or something else entirely.
Some doctors believe growing these cysts is just a part of the breast tissues aging naturally. It’s possible a patient may not feel them at all, but they can also be soft or hard and painful as the cyst grows. Microcysts are too small to feel but will show up on imaging tests, while macrocysts are large enough to be felt and can grow to one to two inches in diameter.
Oftentimes, if breast cysts are not painful or problematic, treatment is unnecessary. The cyst will need to be examined and aspirated (have a sample take from it) in order to ensure that it is not cancerous, but if it is not and does not cause symptoms, it can be left alone.
However, sometimes breast cysts do cause pain or disruptions in a person’s life. If a woman is not already on birth control or other hormone pills, taking these can help to better control menstruation and the hormone fluctuations that can cause breast cysts to develop and grow. Painful breast cysts or those that could be cancerous can be removed surgically as well.
If it’s possible to prevent breast cysts, the experts don’t entirely agree on how that is done. Some suggest a diet low in saturated fats, caffeine and foods and drinks that encourage water retention. Others suggest that taking Vitamin E and A supplements, which affect antioxidants, can help prevent them. If it isn’t possible to prevent them, and most experts appear to agree on that, there are ways to minimize their effect and remain more comfortable until they resolve themselves or a doctor removes them.
Perform regular breast exams, which can not only detect more serious problems, but may catch cysts earlier, when they can be dealt with before they become worse. Following specific dietary advice “avoiding caffeine, saturated fats, chocolate and high-sodium foods” can also ease symptoms, even if they haven’t been shown to prevent the condition to begin with. Wearing a well-fitting bra can also help ease the discomfort of breast cysts as it would prevent unnecessary movement of the breasts, which can aggravate the affected area. Compresses, both hot and cold, have also been shown to ease symptoms, along with over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), NSAIDs like Advil and naproxen (Aleve).