Here we discuss the signs and causes of mastitis, symptoms you may experience, forms of mastitis treatment and the impact the condition can have on breastfeeding.
What is mastitis?
If you find you have red, inflamed areas on your breast and a flu-like feeling, this could be a sign or symptom of mastitis, which is an inflammation of the breast.
You may get mastitis when milk leaks into breast tissue from a blocked duct. The body reacts in the same way as it does to an infection – by increasing blood supply. This produces the inflammation and redness. The breast may feel hot and lumpy and you may also suddenly feel shivery, tired and emotional. Mastitis seems to be more common when women are more tired and stressed than usual.
There are two main types of mastitis:
- non-infectious mastitis, which is usually caused by breastmilk remaining within the breast tissue (milk stasis) as a result of a blocked milk duct or problems with breastfeeding or
- infectious mastitis, which is usually caused by bacteria.
Left untreated, non-infectious mastitis can develop into infectious mastitis.
Although mastitis symptoms make breastfeeding very uncomfortable, it is important to try to continue because frequent feeds will help to:
- remove any blocked breastmilk from the breast,
- resolve the symptoms of mastitis more quickly and
- prevent mastitis from becoming more serious.
The milk from the affected breast can be a little saltier than normal, but it is perfectly safe for your baby to drink.
How to treat mastitis: Most cases can be successfully treated by continuing to feed and using self-help measures, such as:
- drinking plenty of fluids,
- heat and massage applied to the blocked area and/or cool compresses to reduce inflammation (ask your midwife),
- adjusting your position and attachment while breastfeeding and/or
- taking an ibuprofen-based painkiller to reduce inflammation and pain.
It is important to ensure that your baby is properly attached to the breast and that the breast is empty after a feed. In some cases it may be necessary to:
- feed more frequently,
- change position so your baby stimulates the blocked area more effectively,
- express any remaining milk after a feed and
- express milk between feeds.
Infectious mastitis requires prompt treatment to prevent more serious complications developing in the breast, such as an abscess (a painful collection of pus). The self-help actions above often resolve the issue by themselves, but more serious cases of infectious mastitis may require antibiotics in order to bring the infection under control. Your GP will be able to prescribe the correct antibiotics, and usually, you are advised to continue breastfeeding.
For more information about other possible problems you might encounter later on with breastfeeding, read our article here.
NCT supports all parents, however they feed their baby. If you have questions, concerns or need support, you can speak to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling our helpline on 0300 330 0700, whether you are exclusively breastfeeding or using formula milk. Breastfeeding counsellors have had extensive training, will listen without judging or criticising and will offer relevant information and suggestions. You can also find more useful articles here.
National Breastfeeding Line (government funded): 0300 100 0212
NHS information on mastitis.
Best Beginnings - Bump to Breastfeeding DVD Chapter 7 'Overcoming Challenges'.
Healthtalkonline.org: Managing Breastfeeding – dealing with difficult times.