Mastitis – symptoms, treatment and breastfeeding

Getting a mastitis infection while breastfeeding is an annoying and sore experience for many mums. Find out how to recognise the symptoms and soothe painful breasts

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What is mastitis?

Mastitis is an inflammation of breast tissue commonly experienced by breastfeeding women. It usually occurs in the first 3 months after giving birth and around 10% of breastfeeding mums will develop the condition.

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Though rare, it can occasionally strike non-breastfeeding women.

Half of mastitis cases are caused by a bacterial infection. The rest occur because of engorgement (when your breasts don’t empty properly after a feed), or when milk ducts become blocked. Usually only one breast will be affected.

You are more susceptible to mastitis if you have cracked, sore nipples that could become infected.

Difficulties breastfeeding, such as problems with your baby latching on and milk remaining in your breasts can also create or worsen the problem.

Mastitis symptoms

When a bacterial infection causes mastitis, you may notice:

  • Your breast becomes hot, red and shiny
  • Your nipple may produce pus
  • Flu-like symptoms, including muscle aches and high fever
  • Nausea and vomiting

When engorgement is the problem you might notice:

  • Swelling and soreness in your breasts
  • Lumps and cord-like hardened milk ducts
  • Leaking breasts
  • You feel hot, thirsty and generally uncomfortable

When a blocked milk duct is the cause, the problem is more likely to be localised around the blockage. You may notice:

  • An area of tender, hard lumpiness
  • Flu-like symptoms, in severe cases
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What should you do if you think you have mastitis?

If you notice any of the symptoms, visit your doctor, as you may need a course of antibiotics to treat the problem. You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen for the pain and make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids and get some rest.

Although it may be painful, try to continue breastfeeding. The infection will not harm your baby and feeding will drain your breasts, helping to prevent further engorgement.

You may find it helps to express remaining milk after feeding or between feeds using a breast pump.

Advice for breastfeeding with mastitis

If you do go ahead and breastfeed when you have mastitis, here are some tips to help you through it:

  • Vary the position of your baby’s mouth on your breast to ensure all of your milk ducts are stimulated to prevent a blockage developing.
  • Offer your baby the affected breast first.
  • If you’re having any problems breastfeeding, check with your health visitor that your baby is latching on correctly and is in the best position for both of you.
  • If you have to skip a feed for any reason, express the milk using a breast pump. You can store breast milk in the fridge or freezer to use at a later date.
  • Use a purpose-made nursing bra and check that it fits properly and isn’t too tight, as this can restrict milk flow. Loose fitting clothes can also make you more comfy.

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