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Breast infection

Definition

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

Alternative Names

Mastitis; Infection - breast tissue; Breast abscess

Causes

Breast infections are usually caused by a 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

Exams and Tests

Breastfeeding women are usually not tested. However, an exam is often helpful to confirm the diagnosis and rule out complications such as an abscess.

Sometimes for infections that keep returning, milk from the nipple will be cultured. In women who are not breastfeeding, testing may include mammography or breast biopsy.

Treatment

Self-care may include applying moist heat to the infected breast tissue for 15 to 20 minutes four times a day.

Antibiotic medications are usually very effective in treating a breast infection. You are encouraged to continue to breastfeed or to pump to relieve breast engorgement from milk production while receiving treatment.

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 the breast tissue becomes reddened, tender, swollen, or hot
  • You are breastfeeding and develop a high fever
  • The lymph nodes in the 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 engorgement of the breast
  • Proper breastfeeding technique with good latching by the baby
  • Weaning slowly, over several weeks, rather than abruptly stopping breastfeeding

References

Newton ER. Breast-feeding. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JF, Simpson JL, eds. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Churchill Livingston Elsevier; 2007:chap 22.

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. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 6.

Spencer JP. Management of mastitis in breastfeeding women. Am Fam Physician. 2008 Sep 15;78(6):727-31.


Review Date: 11/7/2011
Reviewed By: Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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