women in pain while breastfeeding
Louise Broadbridge
Louise Broadbridge

What is mastitis and how to prevent it

Mastitis is a painful inflammation of the breast, which can sometimes involve an infection too.

You are most likely to experience mastitis if you are breastfeeding and you may need medical treatment if it doesn’t clear up on its own. It is usually caused by the breast not being completely emptied during a feed or a milk duct becoming blocked.

It typically only affects one breast, although it is possible to get mastitis in both.

How can I tell if I have mastitis?

One of the main signs of mastitis is that your breast feels hot and is painful to touch. You may also notice that you have an area of skin which looks red and sore, but mastitis is not always visible.

If you massage your breast, you may notice it feels harder and there may be a lump. You may also have a white discharge coming out of your nipples, which can sometimes contain some blood.

Some women will also experience a painful burning sensation in their breast, which may be continuous or may only happen while breastfeeding. Mastitis can also make you feel very run-down and generally unwell so you may experience symptoms similar to flu, including a high temperature, fatigue, aches and chills.

What should I do if I think I have mastitis?

If you are breastfeeding, you may worry that you will need to stop as a result of your mastitis. In fact, the opposite is true – continuing to feed your baby is one of the best ways of overcoming mastitis.

Breastfeeding may feel more uncomfortable for a while but it is important to carry on feeding your baby on demand and allowing them to stay on the breast for as long as they need to. Take extra care to make sure your baby is latched on properly and in the right position for nursing – check with your midwife, health visitor or a specialist in breastfeeding if you are not sure.  Feeding every 2-3 hours will help to ensure the breast is being drained and help to clear any blockages.

Soaking a cloth in cold water can provide some welcome relief to the pain caused by mastitis and using a warm compress before feeds can help get your milk flowing. You can also try stroking your breast towards the nipple to try and clear the blocked milk duct. Take care though and be gentle as pressing too firmly or squeezing your breast can actually make you feel worse.

If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, take it easy and rest as you would if your body was fighting off a virus. Take paracetamol to bring your temperature down and ease the symptoms and keep your fluid levels up with plenty of drinks.  If the symptoms persist for longer than 12 hours contact your GP as you may need antibiotics.

Make sure the bra you are wearing fits properly and doesn’t include an underwire as these can put too much pressure on the breast. You should also avoid wearing tight clothing around your breasts until you feel better.

You don’t need to apply any creams, lotions or oils to your breast as these can actually make it harder for your mastitis to clear. You should also take care that you don’t express more milk than your baby actually needs as this can cause an oversupply of breastmilk which can make blocked ducts more likely.

If your symptoms of mastitis have not got any better after 12 hours, you should see your GP who can prescribe antibiotics to clear any infection. You should also seek medical advice if you have been taking antibiotics prescribed for mastitis for more than 48 hours and not noticed any improvement.

If you think you might have mastitis and you are not breastfeeding your baby, you should contact your GP for advice straight away.

If you are given antibiotics to treat your mastitis, you can continue to breastfeed your baby. You may however notice your little one is a bit fussier on the breast than usual  - this is because the antibiotic can temporarily change the taste of your milk but persevere with feeding as this will soon pass.

How can I prevent mastitis?

Get some breastfeeding support to make sure your baby is feeding effectively and their positioning and latch are correct. You could speak to your midwife, health visitor or an infant feeding specialist like a lactation consultant or attend a breastfeeding café or support group if you have any concerns.

You can also call the National Breastfeeding Helpline, which is manned between 9.30am and 9.30pm each day, on 0300 100 0212.

Make sure you are draining your breast properly at each feed and allow your baby to nurse for as long as they need to. Timing and restricting breastfeeds can cause milk to collect in your breast, which increases the risk of mastitis.

Another way you can help prevent mastitis is to vary the position you use for breastfeeding as this can help make sure all the different areas of your breast are drained properly.

Smoking can increase your risk of developing mastitis so speak to your GP if you want support in giving up cigarettes.

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