Mastitis is an inflammation of the breast that is normally caused by milk stasis, an obstruction of milk flow, rather than an infection. While mastitis can become very serious and lead to an abscess of the breast, the more common non-infectious mastitis that lasts for less than 24 hours can often be treated with proper and complete milk removal and at-home supportive care. If the condition worsens, or affects both breasts, antibiotics should be started immediately. Mastitis can be caused by blocked milk ducts or from an infection that has entered the body through a specific entry point, normally cracked or bleeding nipples. The condition normally affects only one breast, and comes on quite suddenly. Stress, fatigue, infrequent or skipped nursing and/or expression sessions, inadequate milk removal, anemia, or a weakened immune system can also lead to this painful condition.

Mastitis symptoms are similar to those of plugged milk ducts (swollen, tender, hot, and reddened breasts), but much more severe; red streaks will often appear around the affected area. Mastitis can cause a woman to run a fever of 101.3 or higher, and she may experience chills, body aches, and other flu-like symptoms. During expression, breast milk may be lumpy, clumpy, stringy, or gelatinous, or contain mucous, pus, or blood. Despite its appearance, the milk will be safe for consumption, although its flavor may be much saltier, due to iron and chloride content.

If you believe you have mastitis, you should begin at-home treatment immediately.

Supportive Measures to Consider:

  • Get plenty of bed rest
  •  Increase your fluid intake

Nursing Management:

  • Nurse or express often, making sure to thoroughly empty your breasts.
  • Before nursing, apply a warm compress and gently massage the breast.
  • Loosen your bra and wear non-restrictive clothing to aid in milk flow.
  • Nurse on the affected side first. If this becomes too painful, switch to the opposite side after the let-down reflex has occurred.
  • Apply gentle breast massage or compressions while nursing.
  • After nursing, hand express, and then apply cool compresses to the breast.

Although it is perfectly acceptable (and recommended) for you to nurse from the affected breast, your partner may not be comfortable doing this; it is vital that milk is removed completely from the breast, so be sure to pump or hand express often if suckling is not available. If, after following these supportive nursing measures and at-home treatment, you are still symptomatic, be sure to see your doctor right away.

From The Art of Lactation, copyright 2016 Jennifer Elisabeth Maiden, revised.



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