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Breast infection

A breast infection is an infection in the tissue of the breast.

The female breast is composed mainly of fatty tissue interspersed with fibrous or connective tissue. The circular region around the nipple is often a different color or pigmented. This region is called the areola.

Causes

Breast infections are usually caused by common bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus) found on normal skin. The bacteria enter through a break or crack in the skin, usually on the nipple.

The infection takes place in the fatty tissue of the breast and causes swelling. This swelling pushes on the milk ducts. The result is pain and lumps in the infected breast.

Breast infections usually occur in women who are breastfeeding. Breast infections that are not related to breastfeeding might be a rare form of breast cancer.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a breast infection are:

Most breast infections occur in breastfeeding women when bacteria enters the breast through cracks in the nipple. In severe infections, abscesses may occur. Antibiotics may be indicated for treatment.

Exams and Tests

An exam is needed to make the diagnosis and rule out complications such as an swollen, pus-filled lump (abscess). Sometimes an ultrasound is needed to check for an abscess.

For infections that keep returning, milk from the nipple may be cultured. In women who are not breastfeeding, tests may include:

  • Breast biopsy
  • Breast MRI
  • Breast ultrasound
  • Mammogram 
The female breast is either of two mammary glands (organs of milk secretion) on the chest.

Treatment

Self-care may include applying moist heat to the infected breast tissue for 15 to 20 minutes four times a day. You may also need to take pain relievers.

Antibiotic medicines are usually very effective in treating a breast infection. If you take antibiotics, you must continue to breastfeed or pump to relieve breast swelling from milk production.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The condition usually clears quickly with antibiotic therapy.

Possible Complications

In severe infections, an abscess may develop. Abscesses need to be drained, either as an office procedure or with surgery. Women with abscesses may be told to temporarily stop breastfeeding.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if:

  • Any portion of your breast tissue becomes reddened, tender, swollen, or hot
  • You are breastfeeding and develop a high fever
  • The lymph nodes in your armpit become tender or swollen

Prevention

The following may help reduce the risk of breast infections:

  • Careful nipple care to prevent irritation and cracking
  • Feeding often and pumping milk to prevent the breast from getting swollen (engorged)
  • Proper breastfeeding technique with good latching by the baby
  • Weaning slowly, over several weeks, rather than quickly stopping breastfeeding

Alternative Names

Mastitis; Infection - breast tissue; Breast abscess

References

Grobmyer SR, Massoll N, Copeland EM III. Clinical management of mastitis and breast abscess and idiopathic granulomatous mastitis. In: Bland KI, Copeland EM III, eds.The Breast: Comprehensive Management of Benign and Malignant Disorders

Newton ER. Breast-feeding. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JF, Simpson JL, eds.Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies.

Spencer JP. Management of mastitis in breastfeeding women.Am Fam Physician.

Update Date 11/16/2014

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