What Is Mastitis and How Is It Treated?

What is mastitis?

Mastitis is an inflammation of the breast that is caused by a clogged milk duct; it only occurs in a breastfeeding woman. “Mastitis may or may not involve a bacterial infection,” adds Sahira Long MD, a pediatrician, and lactation consultant, and fellow of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. It is common for women who have mastitis to experience it in one breast at a time, but it can occur in both breasts simultaneously.


What are the signs of mastitis?

According to the Mayo Clinic, mastitis symptoms include:

  • Breast tenderness
  • A breast that’s warm to the touch
  • Generally feeling ill (malaise)
  • Breast swelling
  • Pain or a burning sensation (continuously or while breastfeeding)
  • Skin redness, often in a wedge-shaped pattern
  • Fever of 101 F (38.3 C) or greater

What causes mastitis?

Not breastfeeding properly can lead to milk being trapped in the breast, a main cause of mastitis. Other causes of mastitis, according to the Mayo Clinic, include a blocked milk duct. If a breast doesn’t completely empty at feedings, one of your milk ducts can become clogged, causing milk to back up, which leads to breast infection.

Who is at risk for developing mastitis?

In addition to breastfeeding incorrectly, Dr. Long says that breastfeeding moms are more at risk for developing mastitis when the following happens:

  • They breastfeed infrequently or miss feedings
  • The baby doesn’t latch well, and therefore isn’t draining the breasts
  • Mom and/or baby are sick
  • Maternal stress and exhaustion

If you are having trouble breastfeeding, seek the advice of a lactation consultant.

How is it treated?

The treatment for mastitis depends on how advanced it is, says Dr. Long. If it’s caught early it can be treated by pumping to unclog the blocked milk ducts; however, antibiotics and pain medication may be required. “Effective milk removal and supportive measures like rest, staying hydrated, and getting proper nutrition are key,” she adds.

Should you see a doctor if you suspect you have mastitis?

Not all cases of mastitis require a trip to the doctor’s office, says Dr. Long. For example, if you’re experiencing early symptoms of mastitis, such as pain during pumping or nursing, for more than a day then you can treat it by pumping to get the milk flowing. Although pumping or manually expressing milk in the infected breast will be painful, by forcing more milk to be expressed it is likely that the clogged duct will become unclogged and the problem should be resolved. If symptoms do not improve, or they get worse, then you should schedule an appointment with your doctor, says Dr. Long.

What happens if mastitis is left untreated?

Women who are experiencing mastitis can become very sick, if the condition is left untreated; they may even require hospitalization that includes intravenous (IV) antibiotics. “They can also develop a breast abscess that will require surgical drainage if the mastitis does not respond to appropriate treatment,” Dr. Long adds.

How can it be prevented?

Dr. Long offers these tips on how to prevent mastitis:

  • Drain the breasts completely during feedings (signs that milk is being left include lumps, pain, and redness in the breast)
  • Contact a lactation consultant if you are having challenges with breastfeeding since improper technique can cause mastitis.
  • Get enough rest, so that you have the energy to breastfeed on a schedule
  • Clean breast pump equipment thoroughly

Does mastitis affect the quality or volume of a mother’s milk supply?

No. “Mastitis itself doesn’t usually affect the quality or volume of a mother’s milk supply,” confirms Dr. Long.

Can nursing a baby while having mastitis make a baby sick?

No. “Healthy, full-term babies will not get sick nursing from a breast with mastitis since the milk itself is not infected,” says Dr. Long. If your baby has health problems or was born prematurely, consult your pediatrician about feeding him or her milk from an infected breast, out of an abundance of caution.

Photo: Getty