A Technical Overview of Mastitis in Breastfeeding Women

What Is Mastitis?
Mastitis is an infection of the breast tissue that can cause pain, discomfort and possibly lead to complications including breast abscess.

What Causes Mastitis?
Mastitis is most commonly caused by bacteria entering the milk ducts of a breastfeeding woman. The bacteria usually originates on the mother’s skin, or in the baby’s mouth, and enters the breast through cracks and raw areas on the mothers nipples or aerolas (the dark circular region around the nipple). The bacteria then reproduce within the woman’s milk ducts and the build up of bacterial waste can plug the duct. The body responds by sending antibodies to the infection (which creates pus). The ducts continue to fill with milk, pus and bacterial waste but has no outlet due to the plugged duct. This overabundance of fluid within the duct can lead to severe pain and even cause fluid to leak into the surrounding mammary (breast) tissue.

What Are The Symptoms Of Mastitis?
Mastitis can develop very suddenly, but can also develop over a longer period of time. The most common symptoms of mastitis are swelling of the affected breast, often in one specific region or area of the breast and intense pain or burning in the nipple and breast while breastfeeding or expressing milk. Some of the less common symptoms include fever (a response to the body fighting off the infection within the breast), and skin redness in a wedge shaped pattern on the affected breast. In rare cases, breast milk may be blood tinged.

What Can Be Done To Prevent Mastitis?
Although there is no way to completely prevent mastitis its occurrence can be greatly reduced. A woman should allow her baby to empty one breast fully before switching the baby to the second breast. If the baby does not empty the second breast, the woman should take special care to remember to start the baby’s next feeding on the second, less-drained breast. Remembering to alternate which breast is the starting breast in a feeding can greatly reduce a woman’s risk of developing mastitis. If a woman is deciding to wean her baby, she may be able to prevent mastitis by gradually weaning, rather than to abruptly stop nursing.

What Can Be Done To Treat Mastitis?
In an already-developed, or suspected case of mastitis, a trip to the doctor is advised. A doctor can inspect the breasts for signs of complications, as well as prescribe antibiotics to help combat the infection and eliminate bacteria. Most physicians recommend, that despite the pain, the woman keep breastfeeding on the affected breast, and even use a manual or electronic breast pump on the affected side to help work the infection out. Hot compresses applied to the affected breast can help ease discomfort and pain.

What Are Some Potential Complications Of Mastitis?
Mastitis can lead to an abscess of the breast. Abscesses can be very serious and even fatal if left untreated. Abscesses often require surgical drainage. Mastitis is also a recurrent problem, and a woman who has had mastitis is much more likely to develop it again.

Is It Safe To Breastfeed From A Mastitis-Affected Breast?
According to Mayo Clinic, it is safe to continue to breastfeed from a mastitis affected breast. Usually, the bacteria that caused the mastitis originated in the baby’s mouth, and was passed on to the mother through nursing. However, in some cases, a physician may recommend to temporarily stop breastfeeding. If a woman wishes to continue nursing after the mastitis clears up, and she has been told to stop nursing, it is crucial she use a double electric breast pump at least 8 times within twenty-four hours to insure her supply.

References

Mastitis

Mayo Clinic: Mastitis