What Is Breast Mastitis?

Mastitis is a painful infection experienced by breastfeeding mothers. Learn how to identify, treat and prevent it.

Mastitis, or a breast infection as it is commonly called, is caused by a bacterial infection within the breast. Mastitis generally occurs in women who are breastfeeding. This article will be broken down into the following four sections to help you quickly find the information you need about mastitis: signs and symptoms, common causes, treatment, and prevention.

Signs and Symptoms:

For a woman who has had experience with mastitis, the early symptoms of an impending infection are easily recognized and can be treated to help prevent a full out infection. Early signs can include general breast soreness (in one or both breasts), a small red (and possibly sore) swollen spot on the breast, unusual pain while nursing, and a low-grade fever. The symptoms of mastitis can include pronounced breast soreness, swelling of the affected breast tissue (can be red and inflamed in external appearance), extreme pain nursing a child from the affected breast, flu like symptoms including weakness, medium to high grade fever, chills, and possibly nausea and vomiting.

Common Causes:

The most common cause of mastitis is engorgement of the breasts. Engorgement is a condition that occurs when the breasts produce more milk than is expelled. The milk producing glands overflow, and the milk floods into surrounding tissue causing swelling and inflammation that is often quite painful. Engorgement can occur at any time during the mother/child breastfeeding relationship, but is most common in the first two months. In the first few days post-pardum it is very common for women to experience engorgement as their breasts first begin producing milk, and often produce too much. This engorgement usually subsides without incident as the new mother's body learns to regulate the amount of milk needed for her newborn. Engorgement can also occur in a breastfeeding relationship where milk supply has already been well established if the mother goes too long between feedings, allowing her breasts to become overly full. The last common cause of engorgement is during rapid weaning of a child. Rapid weaning is not recommended for this very reason. If the demand for milk is removed without first reducing the supply, encouragement will occur.

Mastitis can also be caused by introduction of bacteria into the breast tissue via cracked nipples, or other injuries to the breast.


Traditional treatment of mastitis involves a course of antibiotics. Mastitis can also be effectively treated with herbs, and in some cases can simply be resolved with time and rest. During a mastitis infection a nursing mother should continue to nurse her child on the effected breast(s). It is very important that the infected milk duct be stimulated to produce new milk that will help keep it open and functioning and prevent any further infection causing blockages. The milk from an infected breast will not harm the nursing child, although it may have a slightly off flavor that the child may not like. If the child does not want to nurse from the infected breast, a manual or automatic breast pump will need to be used to express milk from the breast. It is vitally important that the infected breast be nursed untill it is soft and 'empty' feeling as often as possible to encourage healing.

Many mothers find warm compresses on the sorest areas of the infected breast very soothing. Warm showers, hot water bottles, and heating pads can also provide heat therapy. Cabbage leaves chilled in the refrigerator, and then gently crushed and placed on the effected breast are also a great source of comfort. The leaves of the cabbage plant contain anti-inflammatory properties that are excellent at relieving engorgement, and the pain and discomfort associated with it. Very gentle massage of the sore and/or swollen areas of the breast can be done to help break up the infection causing blockage(s).

If mastitis occurs as the result of engorgement due to weaning, the weaning process should be slowed down. If slowly weaning the child isn't an option, then the mother should pump just enough milk to relieve engorgement as it occurs. Eventually, as the demand for milk decreases so will the supply and occurrence of engorgement.


As with many things, mastitis really is a case where an ounce or prevention is worth a pound of cure! It is important for breastfeeding mothers to nurse their children often, and on demand. Demand nursing will generally keep the breast from becoming engorged, thereby preventing the most common cause of mastitis. Keeping the breast area clean, allowing the nipples on each breast to thoroughly dry after each feeding, and wearing loose breathable clothing that doesn't encourage sweating or retention of fluids (should the breasts leak milk between feedings) will also help prevent mastitis. Moisture encourages the growth of bacteria, and also weakens the tender skin of the nipple and areola making it more prone to cracks and fissures that could allow bacteria to enter the breast. Being aware of the early signs of mastitis can often prevent a full-blown infection. At the first feeling of pain or engorgement, the breast should be thoroughly nursed or pumped untill it becomes empty feeling. This simple act alone is often enough to discourage an impending infection.

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