A blocked milk duct can be painful. It can lead to a more painful and more serious condition called mastitis. Most women never experience a blocked duct or mastitis. Some women develop blocked ducts or mastitis more than once.
If you are breastfeeding, you can’t completely eliminate the risk of developing a blocked duct or developing mastitis, but there are ways to reduce your risk that.
Blocked Duct or Mastitis?
A blocked or clogged milk duct is pretty much what it sounds like. The milk ducts are the tiny tubes that bring breast milk from the glandular lobules in your breast—where the milk is made—to the nipple, where your baby feeds. If these ducts become blocked for any reason, the lobules keep producing milk that has nowhere to go. The milk starts to back up and that backed up milk swells the lobule and causes pressure in that section of your breast that can be uncomfortable.
A milk duct can become blocked for any number of reasons. If your baby does not completely empty your breasts of milk during a feeding for a couple of days, the milk in your breast can thicken a bit. Other causes of a blocked duct include wearing a bra that is too tight or carrying your baby in a carrier that has straps that cross your breasts. Your breasts might become too full when your baby starts to sleep through the night, lengthening the time between feedings. Or you might need to skip a feeding for some reason. It can also happen when you are weaning your baby from breastfeeding.
Stress can also cause blocked ducts.
Mastitis is an inflammation or infection of the glands in your breast that make breast milk. In addition to a blocked duct, mastitis can also be caused by an infection that gets into the breast through a cracked nipple or a scratch on the skin. Mastitis occurs in about 10 percent of all breastfeeding women and can lead mothers to stop breastfeeding.
Mastitis is more severe than a blocked duct. The pain and inflammation from one or more seriously blocked ducts can cause mastitis, but mastitis can happen without any blocked ducts. In other words, not all blocked ducts lead to mastitis and not all cases of mastitis are caused by blocked ducts.
An infection to the breast can enter the breast through a crack in the nipple or a scratch on the skin. The backed-up milk in the breast becomes a focal point for the infection. In the most serious situation, you may develop an abscess, which is a pocket of localized infection that can feel like a very tender lump in the breast. Abscessed often contain pus, which may drain from the nipple.
The symptoms of mastitis can include the breast becoming swollen or red. Your breast or just an area of it may become hot to the touch. You may also develop a fever and a general feeling of being ill, like you have the flu.
If you develop a hot, sore area in your breast and have a fever that lasts more than a day, call your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics for you. With most antibiotics, you can keep breastfeeding, which is the best treatment for mastitis since it helps relieve pressure in the breast but ask your provider for specific instructions.
Even with mastitis, you should keep breastfeeding your baby from both your breasts. The milk supply in the affected breast may not be as ample but keep breastfeeding unless your healthcare provider specifically tells you to stop.
You can reduce your risk of mastitis by making sure that your baby is feeding from both of your breasts in the most effective way. Make sure your baby feeds equally from both your breasts and that they are as emptied as possible.
Take care of your nipples. Keep them clean and try to keep them from drying out and cracking. Breast milk is actually a good treatment for cracked nipples. Express some milk and drip it onto the nipple and let it dry there. Avoid using any harsh soaps on your nipples.
To help prevent a blocked duct, if your breasts become over full, you should express your milk, either by hand or with a pump. If you have a blocked duct, try to have your baby feed frequently from that breast. Sometimes changing the position of the baby during feeding can help the baby feed more effectively and unblock the duct.
You can also gently massage your breast if you think a blockage is developing. Getting the milk flowing through that duct again is the best way to solve the problem and prevent greater pain or prevent the development of mastitis.
One last note, mastitis can occur in women who are not breastfeeding. It can happen to women who are postmenopausal because of hormonal changes in the body. In rare cases, mastitis can even happen in men. In these cases, the milk ducts are blocked by dead skin cells.
If you develop a blocked duct more than once, you can seek the advice of a lactation consultant. A lactation consultant can give you instructions on ways to position the baby during breastfeeding and give you advice on cracked nipples.