Although breast infections usually affect women who are breastfeeding, issues can arise at other times, as well, for both women and men. Also known as mastitis, breast infections can be very painful and more serious instances may require antibiotics, depending on the type and cause.
There are two types of breast infections: fungal and bacterial. The fungus Candida albicans is the most common cause of fungal breast infections. Large-breasted women and those with diabetes are most susceptible to fungal infections, as are those who take transplant, cancer and steroid medications. Women with HIV, scleroderma, or rheumatoid arthritis are also more likely to develop this type of infection. Bacterial breast infections are caused by Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus, normal skin bacteria common among breastfeeding mothers. When an infection stems from breastfeeding, it is known as lactational mastitis.
Lactational mastitis occurs during breastfeeding. The nipples may become cracked and sore when nursing, especially in the first three months after the birth of a child. Bacteria from the baby’s mouth enters the cracks and multiply very quickly, causing infection. The condition can also develop due to a clogged milk duct. Between ten and 33 percent of women who nurse get this type of mastitis. In rare cases, it can also affect women who are not lactating.
The infection usually starts in a specific spot inside the breast, which becomes hard, turns red, and feels hot to the touch. The redness will usually spread, and as it does, the entire breast may feel hard. The woman may have a fever, headache, chills, and other flu-like symptoms. This type of infection can be very painful. The breast may swell in size, and the woman may feel fatigued. If a woman has had lactational mastitis before, it is not unusual for her to contract it again.
Because the breast is very sore and inflamed, women often choose to stop nursing. This is not a good idea, however, and doctors usually prescribe continuing the process, because it can help with recovery. Most cases of mastitis occur because of clogged milk ducts, or not emptying the breast with each feeding. Stagnant milk in the duct leads to bacterial growth. Warm compresses between feedings can help ease the pain and, in some cases, the doctor will prescribe an antibiotic.
Bruising can cause a bacterial infection in the breast, as can piercings and tattoos that could cause trauma. Nonlactational mastitis can also occur in those who have undergone lumpectomies with radiation treatments. Women with diabetes or depressed immune system disorders are also prone to nonlactational mastitis, although it is rare. Women who notice bruising as a result of medical treatments, piercings, or other trauma should keep an eye out for any changes in the breast.
Chronic subareolar abscesses develop under the areola, the colored skin around the nipple. Though this infection does not spread to other parts of the body, the swollen lumps fill with pus and can be painful. Women who smoke are susceptible to a specific type of subareolar breast infection called Zuska’s disease or periductal mastitis caused by anaerobic bacteria, which need no oxygen to survive. Draining these abscesses may help, but the only cure is to stop smoking.
According to the American Cancer Society, mastitis does not increase the risk of breast cancer. However, some conditions that mimic breast infections may require further testing. Although very rare, inflammatory breast cancer is similar in appearance to breast infections. The breast becomes red, warm, and swollen. The physician usually prescribes antibiotics, but if the infection does not clear up, may perform a biopsy. Other symptoms include enlarged lymph nodes under the arm and skin texture resembling an orange peel.
Americans are rarely diagnosed with this condition, but it can affect those who travel to America from other countries with higher rates of tuberculosis. Occasionally, women with severe immunosuppressive disease or HIV contract the condition, but that, too, is rare. The condition generally starts as a mass in the breast, or it may have the appearance of a draining. Cultures diagnose the issue, and TB medications treat it.
Men have breasts, and though rare, infections can occur. Bacteria can enter the breast tissue through cuts or other skin problems. The condition can be painful and cause swelling and redness at the site, along with flu-like symptoms. Antibiotics can clear up general infections, but a lump or red, scaly skin on the breast or areola could indicate a more serious condition such as cancer. Early detection is key, so a physician should examine the breast should be examined by a physician as soon as possible.
Breastfeeding mothers should ensure their baby is latching properly, nurse frequently, and do not allow the breasts to become engorged between feedings. Ideally, babies will feed equally from both breasts and fully empty the breast at each feeding. Drinking plenty of fluids and wearing bras that fit properly is crucial. Women who develop recurring abscesses and infections or notice hard, red spots on the breast should see a physician. Performing regular breast exams will catch any abnormalities early.
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