What Is Mastitis and How Can You Treat It?

Mastitis is a breast infection that usually causes one breast to be painful or tender. It's most commonly experienced by mums during the first few weeks of breastfeeding their newborn, but some may experience it later on. Treating this breast infection early is crucial to avoid developing complications. To help treat mastitis, doctors usually prescribe antibiotics. Breastfeeding can actually help prevent or resolve the condition, but it's important to use the right techniques so that each breast is fully emptied of milk. Read on to find out about the symptoms and risk factors, and to learn what steps you can take to help prevent or treat mastitis.

What Is Mastitis?

Mastitis occurs when breast tissue becomes inflamed as a result of an infection. It most often affects breastfeeding mums (and is then called lactation mastitis) in the first 6 to 12 weeks of breastfeeding, but sometimes it can happen later on. Mastitis can be painful, and it may make you want to give up on breastfeeding, but once the infection has subsided, you will be able to continue breastfeeding without pain. Then you can fully enjoy this shared time, knowing that it benefits both you and your baby.

Signs and Symptoms of Mastitis

When you first start breastfeeding, it's normal for your breasts to feel a little tender or sore, so what does mastitis feel like? These are some of the signs and symptoms of mastitis:

  • Pain or burning sensation in the breast while breastfeeding (this breast infection usually only affects one breast)

  • Tenderness or soreness of the breast

  • Swelling of the breast

  • Feeling of warmth in the breast

  • Redness of the breast (often in a wedge-shaped pattern)

  • Feeling tired and run down

  • Fever and chills.

What Causes Mastitis?

The causes of mastitis include:

  • Trapped breast milk. If the breastfeeding technique is incorrect, then the breast may not fully empty. This trapped breast milk can cause breast soreness and potentially lead to infection.

  • Blocked milk duct. If a milk duct becomes clogged, a build-up of milk may occur. If the blockage is not treated, a breast infection may follow.

  • Bacteria. Bacteria from your skin and your baby's mouth can enter the milk ducts through a break or crack in the skin of the nipple or via a milk duct opening. Breast milk is a breeding ground for bacteria that can cause mastitis.

  • Some mums are more susceptible than others, and some risk factors include:

  • Cracked nipples

  • Staying in only one position while you breastfeed, which results in the breast not draining fully

  • Wearing a tight-fitting bra or putting pressure on your breast, which can restrict milk flow

  • Being overly tired or stressed

  • Having had a previous bout of mastitis, which may increase the risk of recurring lactation mastitis

  • Poor nutrition.

How to Prevent Mastitis

Here are some things you can try to help prevent mastitis:

  • Make sure your baby fully latches on while feeding

  • Try feeding in different breastfeeding positions, this may help your baby latch on and feed more effectively.

  • Ensure your baby fully drains one breast before switching her to the other

  • Breastfeed as often as you can and for as long as your baby is hungry — don't leave too much time between feeds

  • To aid in emptying your breasts, apply a warm compress (a warm, wet washcloth) to your breasts or take a warm shower before breastfeeding

  • Read more about breastfeeding, and seek help from a lactation consultation or your doctor to learn the proper techniques, so that each breast is fully drained during feeds.

Eventually, when you want to wean your baby off breastfeeding, you may wonder how to dry up your milk supply without getting mastitis. The key is to wean gradually. Speak to your lactation consultant or doctor to learn more.

Breastfeeding and Mastitis

You can and should breastfeed with mastitis. It may be a little uncomfortable at first, but breastfeeding can actually help resolve the problem faster. It's also safe for your baby. The antibacterial properties of your milk help protect your baby from the infection. Consult your doctor about breastfeeding while taking antibiotics for the mastitis.

Treatment for Mastitis

It's important to treat mastitis as soon as you notice it. At first, you may have flu-like symptoms, followed by soreness in a breast. At this point, it's important to speak to your doctor about how to treat mastitis, because, if left untreated, pus can collect and form an abscess that may require drainage. Oral antibiotics are usually prescribed to treat mastitis. If this doesn't help clear it up, or if you get recurring bouts, speak to your doctor again about how to get rid of mastitis for good, possibly with another type of antibiotic, for example.

These tips will also help give you a little mastitis relief:

  • Follow the above prevention tips, as these can also help resolve the problem (for example, nursing regularly can help reduce inflammation and open the blocked area).

  • Lean over a tub of warm water, keeping your breasts submerged, for 10 minutes a few times a day. This may help remove any dry secretions that may be blocking the milk flow so your breasts can fully empty during feeds.

  • Ask your doctor about taking a pain reliever to help reduce the discomfort.

  • Rest up (resting in bed with your baby may also encourage more frequent feeds).

  • Drink lots of water to help your body fight the infection.

  • If breastfeeding is too painful, try pumping breast milk or hand expressing instead.

  • Wear a supportive, not tight-fitting bra.

Mastitis can be discouraging, but know that once the condition has cleared up, you can return to breastfeeding as normal, and enjoy bonding with your baby.

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