What is Mastitis?

Mastitis is an acute infection of the mammary glands inside the breast. These glands produce milk, so the infections are most common during breastfeeding because bacteria can enter the breast through the nipple from the baby’s mouth.

However, women who have never breastfed, and even women in menopause, can still suffer from this type of infection. It also has a rare chronic form that is more common in women who have never breastfed. Up to 3% of all breastfeeding mothers experience at least one mastitis infection.

What are the Symptoms of Mastitis?

Regardless of the cause, mastitis triggers symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Abscesses anywhere on the breast
  • Achiness and pain throughout the body
  • Slightly swollen, tender breasts

There should be no discharge from the nipple, aside from milk and potential clots. If there is distinct discharge aside from breast milk or at all when not producing milk, it’s likely a more serious problem with the mammary glands like cancer. You should also see a doctor immediately if the breasts become reddened, swell noticeably, or develop a distinct lump.

Mastitis Causes

There are two main causes of mastitis:

  • Milk Stasis

Fresh human milk does not get infected. But when milk gets trapped in the milk ducts due to a blockage, infections such as mastitis can occur. Milk stasis is a leading cause of mastitis in breastfeeding women.

The milk may fail to drain properly from the breast because the nursing mother does not have the proper skill of breastfeeding or the baby is unable to feed adequately. When the breasts are improperly drained time and again, stale milk may get trapped in the milk ducts.

  • Infection

Bacteria may enter the breast through a crack on the nipples or an opening in the milk ducts causing infection. Breast milk, however, has antibacterial properties which keep a baby protected from infection. Infection is the leading cause of mastitis in non-breastfeeding women.

How is Mastitis Treated?

While many cases of mastitis clear up without treatment, it’s necessary to see your doctor if you’re running a fever or the infection interferes with your ability to breastfeed or pump milk. Dizziness, nausea, and a high fever are also signs the infection is serious enough to warrant emergency treatment.

Most cases are diagnosed through a breast milk culture. A biopsy may be needed to determine what kind of infection is occurring so medication can be targeted for the best effect. It is especially important to choose the right antibiotics to deal with chronic mastitis. Some women may need surgery to remove mammary glands that keep becoming re-infected.

Mastitis Prevention

Here are a few tips to prevent mastitis infection.

  • While breastfeeding, milk should be completely drained from the breasts.
  • A baby should be left to drain one breast completely before being fed the other.
  • Breastfeeding position should be changed every time the baby is fed. No one setting should be used regularly.
  • A nursing mother should ensure the baby latches on properly while feeding.
  • Regular emptying of the breasts should often be done. Breastfeeding should be done at least once every three hours, or when the baby demands. The mother should express milk using a pump if she cannot feed the baby every four or so hours.
  • Air drying the nipples after each feeding can prevent cracking and irritation.
  • Use of a lanolin-based cream will also keep nipples healthy and prevent cracking.
  • Avoiding tight-fitting bras also prevents damage to the breast which can result in infection.
  • Getting ample rest is important for a breastfeeding mother as it keeps her immunity high.
  • Weaning should not be sudden. Breastfeeding should be reduced gradually.